American policy-making is a succession of kludges

October 9, 2013
(Washington Post)
(The Washington Post)

The American public likes to complain about how difficult it is to understand U.S. public policy measures like Obamacare. Johns Hopkins political scientist Steve Teles argues in a recent article for National Affairs that instead of well-designed policies, we get kludgeocracy, a succession of semicoherent fixes to the policies that we already have. Kludgeocracy is worse in the U.S. than in many other electoral democracies because of underlying problems in our political system.

The most obvious reason why American institutions generate policy complexity is our system’s numerous veto points. The separation of powers means that any proposal must generate agreement at three different stages — each house of Congress and the president. … Most legislation has to pass through separate subcommittee and committee stages, each of which presents opportunities for legislators to stymie action. Many ambitious proposals are considered by Congress under “multiple referrals,” in which more than one single committee is given jurisdiction. … Finally, the super-majority requirement for breaking a filibuster in the Senate, combined with the intense partisanship that accompanies most major policy reforms, means that any single member can stall the progress of a piece of legislation, and a cohesive minority can kill it.

A superficial analysis would predict that this proliferation of veto points would lead to inaction, generating a systematic libertarian bias. In practice, however, every veto point functions more like a toll booth, with the toll-taker able to extract a price in exchange for his willingness to allow legislation to keep moving. … many of our legislative toll-takers have a vested interest in the status quo. In exchange for their willingness to allow a bill to proceed, therefore, they often require that legislation leave their favored programs safe from substantive changes. Consequently, new ideas have to be layered over old programs rather than replace them — the textbook definition of a policy kludge. Second, the need to gain consent from so many actors makes attaining any degree of policy coherence difficult at best … kludgeocracy is now self-generating, as its growth has created a “kludge industry” that feeds off the system’s appetite for complexity.

Teles’s analysis of the politics of kludge-piling has lessons for both left and right (his ideas have much in common with those of Hoover Institution political scientist Terry Moe, who writes eloquently about how most American legislative measures are in part designed by their enemies). Both argue about the size of the state, rather than whether the state is transparent and accountable. Kludges used to be part of the cost of doing politics, but they are now threatening to overwhelm the system that generates them. It’s also worth reading Wonkblog’s interview with Teles for further information.

Henry Farrell is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. He works on a variety of topics, including trust, the politics of the Internet and international and comparative political economy.
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