Time After Time – Why Time & Uncertainty Make Legislating Difficult

In my last post on the GOP Healthcare debate, I mentioned “time consistency” and I wanted to delve a little deeper into that question and the problem facing GOP leadership.  I’d suggest this time-consistency issue is actually a major problem for the GOP in putting together an ambitious policy agenda on more than just healthcare.

Cox & McCubbins named possibly the driest and most boring theory in the already-dry field of Congress studies – the “procedural cartel“.  This theory of Congress suggests that party coalitions basically act like law firms or investment banks; “senior partners” (Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell ) issue orders to “associates” (rank and file) under the expectation that loyalty will be rewarded and success shared.  Passing legislation is a classic collective action problem – legislators want goals, e.g., Obamacare repeal, but only want to cast a risky vote if the party will be on their side.  Parties choose leaders in order to provide coordination for this and related problems.

This all hinges on trust.  Legislators need to trust that the tough votes they cast today will result in support  – political cover, funds for reelection, etc. – from the party mechanism tomorrow.  That trust that leaders won’t turn around and screw the legislators is time consistency.  I think the Republicans face two big time-consistency problems: one is the character of the President, but the other is the nature of partisan media and this will likely bedevil Democrats when they take back Congress.

First and most obviously – the President is clearly untrustworthy.  He’s not an ideological conservative and has a short time horizon, and legislators should have little confidence he will expend political capital on them next November in exchange for a vote they’re taking today.  He may well see more short-term political benefit to turning on the AHCA – and on them.  Even on the most basic risk-assessment level – the man doesn’t pay his contractors. He’s a walking, talking, tweeting time-consistency problem.

The other, more subtle issue is that partisan media now controls a lot of the influence once held by partisan leaders.  Republicans have no idea whether Breitbart will carry the water for them on a tough vote, and many suspect it won’t.  Partisan media has poorly aligned incentives, as they sell to an extremist (and small) audience and don’t necessarily care about the party’s fortunes every other November.  If the bill is received poorly, or if it collapses, members who took a tough vote may find themselves receiving fire from every angle and it won’t particularly matter if Paul Ryan offers them $1M from the NRCC for reelection.

If Republicans want to pass an agenda that will involve some very tough votes, they need to figure out a way to solve this issue.  Ultimately it comes down to the President – he needs to give some sort of credible signal of commitment to the agenda and to having the party’s best interest in mind.*  What would constitute such a credible signal? That’s a question for another day.


*: The President may not care about passing legislation – I suspect he does not.

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