Last week, I told a tale of two capital cities, one exhibiting what fans of effective governance might see as the “worst of times”, one exhibiting at least some signs of what could pass for the “best of times.”
Tallahassee was the capital in the first saga. Washington, D.C. was the capital in the second (which, even now, makes me very uncomfortable).
The point of those pieces wasn’t either to praise Caesar or to bury him, to borrow from another classic tale. It was to set the stage for consideration of a simple question: Why?
Why would a state government completely and overwhelmingly under one-party control, in a time of robust state revenues, dissolve into disarray and fail to complete the first task of each legislative session, the passing of a budget?
Why would our nation’s capital, deeply riven by partisan and personal animosities, with divided control, exhibit at least a degree of comity and collaborative problem-solving?
The popular approach to explaining “dysfunction” is to point fingers and blame either groups or individuals. I’m certainly as guilty of this oversimplification as anyone else. It’s hard not to personalize and demonize those who one thinks simply don’t get it, or don’t care, or have sold out to some ideology (of the right or the left), or to the highest bidder. And, let’s be honest, sometimes there is truth to those sorts of allegations.
But there also is an important and often less recognized force behind both “dysfunctionality” and “functionality” that merits our attention. The institutional structures, and the incentives and disincentives they foster for various kinds of behavior, play a powerful role in the political process.
Consider U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s actions in the previous congressional session and in the present one.
In the previous Congress, the strategic mantra seemed to be two-fold: make symbolic gestures, particularly those satisfying to the more conservative elements of the Republican constituency; and make sure nothing gets done.
Both of these strategies reflect the institutional incentive structure baked into our national government’s institutions and our system of elections. The Republicans were in the minority in the Senate. They wanted to be in the majority. That meant that they needed to act so as to increase their chances of securing a majority in the November 2014 elections.
If one is trying to build a majority coalition to pass legislation, especially when one has divided government, the leadership must ask (or compel) some members to vote on the floor in ways that are potentially damaging to their chances of re-election. This is particularly concerning, in this era, for representatives from solid red or solid blue districts . . . not because they run any risk of being defeated in the general election, but because they risk being unseated in the primary by conservatives or liberals (depending on the color) who are more ‘pure’ (not having had to make legislation in Congress).
While Democrats controlled the Senate, the Republican leadership saw little purpose in making the institution function effectively, though it was important to manage perceptions so that any public backlash against dysfunction would not hurt Republican challengers running against Democratic incumbent senators (many of whom, in this last cycle, were from purple or even red states, creating great opportunities for the Republicans upon which they capitalized successfully).
Now that the Senate is in Republican hands, however, there is a perceived need to demonstrate the capacity to govern. This isn’t just about pride; the Republican majority is vulnerable in 2016, when Republicans will be defending 24 seats (7 of them in states Obama won in 2012), while the Democrats only have to defend 10. A dysfunctional Senate now may mean a Democratic majority later . . . and a demotion for Senator McConnell.
In short, where once obstruction was the rational path to power, now it is necessary to make the system work, to accomplish at least some things legislatively that prove that the Republican Party can provide affirmative leadership, not just be the party of “no”.
Substitute any knowledgeable, skilled, and reasonably prudent Republican Senator for Mitch McConnell, and the results (in the big picture, anyway) likely would be the same.
In contrast, Florida House Speaker Crisafulli has no such concerns about 2016, for two reasons. One, the Republican majority in the state House is so baked into the Florida legislative district cake that it would take an extraordinary political disaster to lose it. Second, and perhaps more important, it won’t matter to Speaker Crisafulli whether the House is Republican- or Democratic controlled in 2016, because he won’t be there. Term limits will send him packing regardless of how he does his job, and regardless of how the public perceives the job he does.
Which has led some to speculate that the dramatic early adjournment this week wasn’t about the budget or the House at all; it was about a state-wide race in 2018. Remembering that Republicans have successfully won most of the statewide seats in several election cycles now, the toughest race any Republican candidate might face might be in the primary. And there, where the electorate tips decidedly to the right, an “in your face” slam against Medicaid expansion, Obamacare, and compromising conservatives in the Senate might be just the prescription for electoral success.
That doesn’t make Speaker Crisafulli a bad man, any more than Majority Leader McConnell’s actions make him a good man (or vice versa). It makes them rational actors pursuing goals related to political power . . . goals most people in public office share to a greater or lesser extent.
Not a bad thing, truthfully, when you are talking about a political process. Without power, one can’t get anything done. To be ambitious for the opportunity to accomplish something for the people of the city, the county, the state or the nation is . . . well, a noble thing, actually.
But the satisfaction of that ambition will require one to understand the incentives and disincentives built into the institutions and processes of government and politics. And it may prompt some to choose paths that advance those ambitions at the expense of the greater good . . . not a noble thing at all.
Whatever incentive structure the institutional arrangements put in place will be the incentive structure to which leaders attune their conduct.
Best of times? Worst of times?
More like, in times like these, with incentives like these, this is precisely how one might expect some politicians anxious to lead to conceptualize and implement leadership.