Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

There was No Legislative Decision : The Temporary Sort of Resolution to the Fiscal Grift

with 3 comments

Red Cliff along US287 between Lander and Dubois in Wyoming
By Wing-Chi Poon [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (, via Wikimedia Commons

[Update: Turns out the House may not be interested in rubber stamping these deal. Also, see Matt Stoller’s Eight Corporate Subsidies in the Fiscal Cliff Bill, From Goldman Sachs to Disney to NASCAR.]

The deal to avoid the misnamed ‘fiscal cliff’ the self-imposed crisis (i.e. shock doctrine) designed to impose austerity on a public that is overwhelmingly opposed to it justified by fake concern over deficits and debt sheds important light on the state of our political system. I’ll have more to say later, but to start, I wanted to mention the sham that has become of the legislative process. The deal was negotiated between Vice President (and former Senator) Joe Biden and Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, in a process that excluded the other 99 members of the lame duck Senate and the entire House of Representatives. As the Washington Post reported:

“There are two people in a [metaphorical] room deciding incredibly consequential issues for this country, while 99 other United States senators and 435 members of the House of Representatives — elected by their constituencies to come to Washington — are on the sidelines,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.)said on the Senate floor in the afternoon.


…Thune was right that legislators had, essentially, been cut out of the legislative process. By the time a deal was announced, about 8:45 p.m. Monday night, there was little time for anything but a vote.“At least we would have had an opportunity to debate this, instead of waiting now until the eleventh hour,” Thune said.


Monday marked the third time in two years that a congressional cliffhanger had ended with a bargain struck by McConnell and Biden. The first time came in late 2010, during a year-end showdown over the expiring Bush-era tax cuts. The second was in August 2011, during the fight over the debt ceiling.

It should go without saying that when all those high level federal officials are cut out of the process, the people are too. But for the moment, I want to point out how our models for understanding politics are often inadequate. Members of Congress aren’t deciding anything here – they are ratifying a decision made elsewhere. Now it’s true that Biden and McConnell were not free of political constrains, but then again, no one ever is.  It’s generally a bad idea to assume that those who hold the power according to civics textbooks are those who actually hold the power.  The Constitution was supposed to make the House the main driver of fiscal policy, secondarily the Senate, and lastly the President.  (The Supreme Court was intended to have little to no role, yet that didn’t stop Chief Justice Roberts, a ‘neutral umpire,’ from making it the main theme of his report [pdf] on the state of the judiciary.)

I’m not sure what this is, but it’s not representative democracy. And it’s not legislative decision-making.

Written by David Kaib

January 1, 2013 at 12:18 pm

3 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I totally agree, David, the end deliberations on averting the so-called fiscal cliff are not a manifestation of representative democracy. However, the American people elected these “tea partiers” to Congress – duped though they were by monied interests, e.g., Dick Armey’s Freedom Works. IMO it is these elected representatives who have forced closed door deliberations because open deliberations resulted in the disastrous sequestration legislation. So, the conclusion is still the same: Democracy is messy.

    Michele Kelly

    January 1, 2013 at 4:25 pm

    • Well, it’s worth remembering that more people voted for Democrats than for Republicans, so I’m not inclined to blame voters for this mess. The other thing is that it’s not just the right that’s being kept out of this, but the left as well. Either way, it’s hard through all this for voters to know what’s going on or hold anyone accountable for it. The end result can be called a lot of things, but I don’t think democracy is one of them.

      David Kaib

      January 1, 2013 at 4:46 pm

      • You seem to be suggesting that voters should be involved in every piece of legislation Congress passes. That’s not the way it works! Yes, there are public comment periods on pending regulation from various agencies, but input on Congressional legislation is limited to the ballot box and calls, petitions, emails to Congress critters prior to a pending law.That is not the case here and that is because Congress failed to act before now and that is because of Tea Party reps in Congress. I stand by my initial comment:)

        Michele Kelly

        January 1, 2013 at 5:13 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: