There’s too much trust in the Senate

June 22, 2012

Quick recap: Tyler Cowen wrote that our policy outcomes reflected the declining trust voters have in the government. I argued that they reflected political gridlock, and appeared to have little evident relationship to who or what voters trusted.

Cowen's reply, published on Tuesday, is provocative. "I view political polarization as another manifestation of lack of trust," he writes.

For instance the Democrats, when they possibly had a chance, did not make hard moves to try to abolish the filibuster and these days they are not keen to present and vote on federal budgets.  Politicians do not have enough trust that voters will reward them for being courageous, if that is the right word, and voters do not have enough trust that the political act is in fact one of courage.

I take Democrats' actions on the filibuster as an excess of trust. In general, senators who want to maintain the filibuster trust one another and believe the institution is strong enough,  and voters are savvy enough, to resist the paralyzing effects of polarization. They've been opposed primarily by younger senators who have only seen the Senate in its current state of continuous dysfunction, and do not trust the institution's ability to self-correct.


These guys don't trust each other. (Jewel Samad -- AFP/Getty Images)

An example of the former school is Harry Reid, who, before the start of this Congress, came to a gentleman's agreement with Mitch McConnell in order to head off any of the rules changes being considered by the institution's young bucks. But in May, he angrily reversed himself after Republicans attempted to slow consideration of the Export-Import Bank, a move Reid considered to be one of many violations of his agreement with McConnell.

If there were ever a time when Tom Udall and Jeff Merkley were prophetic, it’s tonight. These two young, fine senators said it was time to change the rules of the Senate,and we didn’t. And they were right. The rest of us were wrong -- or most of us, anyway. What a shame...

Mr. President, I am finished here, but I just want to say again, for those that are listening here or watching, Senator Udall and Senator Merkley want to do something to change the rules regarding filibuster. If there were anything that ever needed changing in this body, it’s the filibuster rule, because it’s been abused, abused, and abused.

That is to say, when Reid's trust in his ability to govern the Senate alongside his Republican counterpart was higher, he was willing to live with the filibuster. Now that it is reduced, he, like the younger senators, would like to see it changed. I predict that as senators find themselves less and less able to trust the other side -- a natural result of polarization, which makes it harder and harder for senators on the other side to cross the aisle -- the filibuster will come under increasing attack.

As for Senate Democrats and their resistance to voting on budgets, their strategy has to be counterbalanced with the strategy of Republicans, which has been to cast almost constant votes on unusually radical, unpopular budgets, which implies Republicans believe the voters have an unusually high level of trust and are willing to reward extremely hard choices. So you could argue it either way.

But I see these votes less as a question of trust than as a question of political strategy. In my reporting, almost all legislators believe that voters will reward them for getting big, hard things done. Getting things done, as a rule, is popular. Currently, the two parties are jockeying to gain the upper hand in the negotiations that will lead to those big things getting done. But the system is gridlocked, nothing is getting done, and voters hate that.

I don't want to go so far as to say the electorate's declining trust in their institutions is a pure function of polarization. As Cowen writes, there's good reason to believe much of it is driven by poor economic outcomes. But I think polarization is driving outcomes which are driving trust.

For instance, if the system had been less gridlocked over the last two years, the party in charge would have passed more appropriate economic policies, the economy would likely be in somewhat better shape today, and voters would also have whatever comfort could be derived from the idea that somewhere, someone is actually in charge, and doing something to help. I think that would be good for their trust in Washington. The debt ceiling debacle, by contrast, was quite bad for it.

Over at The New York Times, Catherine Rampell posits another mechanism by which bad outcomes can reduce the public's trust in government:

Declining confidence in institutions and cutting funds for those institutions can be a self-perpetuating cycle.

People lose faith in their government institutions, perhaps because those institutions are poorly run or because pundits declare that the institutions are poorly run (usually, some combination of the two, it seems). Voters and/or their politicians then sharply cut funds for those institutions. Insufficient funds and staffing then make these institutions even less effective, reducing confidence in them further and thereby prompting even more cuts. And so on.

In other words, if gridlock makes voters unhappy with government, and then unhappiness with government is used to pass cuts to government services, then voters will be even more unhappy because now the government is providing a lower level of services. More here.

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