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In Defense of Our Divisive, Parochial, and Petty Congress

Another terrific Ezra Klein interview, this time of former car czar Steve Rattner (and again: Ezra Klein’s interviews are one of the very best things on these intertubes. Consistently substantive, interesting...excellent).

Rattner doesn’t like Congress. At all.

That’s not surprising. First of all, because no one likes Congress. But, in this particular case, because of course a technocrat hired by the executive branch to solve a national problem is going to find Congressional meddling obnoxious. Members of Congress stand of for seemingly random particular interests against the national interest, and besides that Members of Congress are not exactly known for only speaking when they have actual expertise. Or even a vague knowledge of the subject matter. So here’s Rattner: 

EK: Tell me about dealing with the Congress.
SR: When you actually deal with them to try and get something done? It’s impossible. It is so divisive, so parochial and so petty. If you look at the auto rescue, the only time Congress really got involved was over the dealers. Here we are, laying off thousands of workers and restructuring these companies, and the only thing that animated Congress was the dealers. In terms of the body as a whole, they were just obstructionists.
I think that if we didn’t have TARP, the whole economy could have imploded before Congress figured out what to do.

He’s right that Congress is divisive, parochial, and petty. That’s how it was designed! Now, let me explain why that’s a good thing. I’ll make three points. The first two defenses of Congress are on grounds of efficacy: it may be the case, after all, that adding divisive, parochial, and petty voices into the process may very well yield better policy than just turning things over to experts. The third will not depend on efficacy at all, but instead turns to the inherent value of political action.

(1) In a nation of over 300 million, conflicts between national and particular interests are inevitable, and it’s important for particular interests to have some way of being heard, and have a chance to win. For example: suppose that there are two plausible plans for rescuing the auto industry. One would net the nation (in some sense) an additional $300M, but at the cost of wiping out several thousand auto dealers who would be saved under the other plan. Which is better: an extra one dollar per person, or saving those dealerships? I don’t know -- but I’m glad that the dealers can organize and fight for their interests and have a portion of the political system eager to fight for them, because I’m fairly certain that there are at least some cases in which I think we’d be better off sacrificing overall efficiency in order to protect those who would be hurt by it. Congress is a marvelous machine for channeling the voices of parochial interests. 

Some caveats are in order on that point. Someone in the system should also be looking out for the big picture. I’m confident that we’re apt to get that from the Madisonian system of separated institutions sharing powers -- that’s going to be Rattner’s position in this scheme -- but it’s worth remembering that the president may care a lot more about swing voters and swing states than he does about everyone else, so it’s not a given. Also, while I think it’s very good that Congress (and Madisonian democracy in general) allows interests to emerge and bargain and battle, one should never assume that all interests are on equal footing as a result. Still, that some particular interests are ignored or shortchanged is not, in my view, a reason to ignore all parochial interests.

(2) Rattner could be wrong. Not about Congress -- but about the substance of the issue. Yes, we can design a system in which politicians make big policy decisions, and then turn it over to bureaucrats and technocrats to implement those policies in the most efficient way possible, and we could shield those bureaucrats and technocrats from “normal” politics, instead of the American system in which, through Congress, politics always intrudes on how policy is carried out.

We could, but alas it would not, in fact, purge bias from the system. Bureaucrats and technocrats are, after all, people too. They may not be driven by re-election, and they do have expertise that politicians rarely have. But they too have career and job goals (promotions, bigger budgets for the agency, autonomy from political interference) that can undermine their objectivity. Think Sir Humphrey Appleby next time you’re tempted to put too much faith in neutral expertise (you have watched Yes, Minister, right?). On top of that, the very training that gives these folks their expertise can also lead to all sorts of pathologies: think Bay of Pigs, or Vietnam, or the Rubin Treasury Department. Congress is divisive, yes. A little divisiveness is often exactly what’s needed.

(3) Should qualified experts make policy? Even if they would be better at it, there’s still a case to be made for divisive, parochial, and petty voices in national policy-making. What is bureaucracy? It isn’t rule of the people; it’s rule of anonymous functionaries. We are to be governed by desks -- what Hannah Arendt called “the rule of nobody,” or what Max Weber called an “iron cage” from which humanity could not escape.

They feared bureaucracy not because it was inefficient, but precisely because it was so effective. They were terrified it would leave no room for people to actively choose how to organize themselves in the world. In other words, it isn’t just bad because the technocrats (rule of, what, technique? Do we want to be ruled by technique?) might be wrong; it’s bad because if they’re right, then we’ll (inevitably?) always leave everything to them, and in that world we, ourselves, no longer get to do politics.

And that is terribly important. Part of why the Founders thought that democracy was a good thing was because they learned, through their revolution, about the human capacity for public action, and they wanted “the people” to have the opportunity to develop and enjoy that capacity -- to experience public happiness. For them, and for many democratic theorists, democracy was not just about “getting it right” in terms of making public policy match popular preferences, but it was about opening participation in public life to new people because such participation was valuable for its own sake.

Now, of course, we don’t all do politics. By 1787, Madison and probably others realized that in a free nation the pull of private happiness would always be strong, and many would never feel the urge to get involved. But they created a system with incentives for involvement, because (thanks to those separated institutions sharing powers) such involvement is meaningful in the crassest self-interested ways, and that opens up the chance that you’ll find your involvement meaningful in more subtle ways. Without Congress, with all of its divisive, parochial, and petty way, that just doesn’t happen.