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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

On the Ethics of Legislating

The means by which a bill becomes a law are sometimes referred to “how sausage gets made” because they are not suited for public display.  The belief is that were the citizens to see what goes on in the process, they would demand that it be changed. Perhaps this means that it should be changed.

For example, Rep. David Dreier, R-California, argued in March, 2010 in the US House that while “the process of lawmaking should be ugly, I have never seen it as ugly as it seems to be coming before us this week. … I think that [James] Madison would be spinning in his grave at the fact that there is absolutely no accountability to what is taking place here.” He was referring to the Speaker’s attempt to bypass a direct vote on the US Senate’s health-care bill by voting on a rule that would deem that bill passed in the House.  More generally, the ugliness in passing legislation refers to the horse-trading, which can include special favors and even payoffs.  For example, the U.S. Senate’s health-care reform bill of 2010 included a “Louisiana Purchase” and a special deal for Nebraska—both were engineered to obtain the votes of the two states’ senators. 

In horse-trading, a representative votes against the preference of a majority of his or her constituents because they will get something else out of it.  The official judges that the typical constituent would agree to vote against his or her preference on the given issue because of the payoff to the district.  “I’ll go ahead and vote for health-care reform with a significant government role because we’ll get a new bridge.”  If the representative’s judgment matches those that the majority of his or her constituents, the sausage-making is ethical because the representative is indeed representing.

If most of the representative’s constituents would say no to the deal, then the yes vote would only be ethical if the representative judges correctly that the deal would be in their best interest.  Being a representative can justifiably depart from polls to act in his or her constituents’ best interest because this too represents them.  Were there no value in this, we would have a direct rather than a representative democracy.  There is in the latter a check on the passions of the people; the strength of check depends on the length of the term because an election further off gives the representative more time for the “in your best interest” to become evident.

The ethical waters darken appreciably the more the deal benefits the representative rather than the constituents.  A friend or relative getting a judgeship, for example, does not justify a vote that is at odds with the preference (or best interest) of the majority of the constituents.  This is essentially a principal-agent problem, where the representative is the agent who is not acting in the interest of his or her principal.  It is unethical because the agent has agreed to the duty of acting in the principal’s interests.

So sausage-making is not necessarily as sordid for the individual representative as it might seem overall.  An ethical representative need not fear discussing it.  In fact, making it transparent as part of the political discourse (through the media) would permit him or her to inform the constituents why he or she is making the deal.  There might be feedback ensuing that leads the representative to revise his or her assessment. 

Of course, the representative might fear that the deal would unravel were it made public. However, it is unethical to include stealth deals in a public legislation.  A deal that is not agreed to in the light of day should not be part of a given bill because the majority voting for a bill should know what they are voting on.  There is nothing shameful in a deal that is in the interest of one’s constituents, and such a deal might be in the interest of the other representatives who want the bill to pass.  “We will give your people the bridge that is in their interest in exchange for their support on our bill here.”   This is essentially a recognition of legitimate priorities.  However, it can also be argued that a bill should stand on its own merits.

 Strictly speaking, if a majority of the representatives do not support the health-reform, for example, the bill should not be passed.  Proponents of a bill overreach in looking for deals to put them over the top because the majority vote with the deals does not match the merits of the bill apart from the unrelated deals.  Bad public policy can be enacted because some districts care more about other things.  In this sense, it would be ethical for the proponents to admit that they don’t have a majority and that therefore the bill ought not to pass.  Behind such a normative constraint is the selfishness of “I want it my way anyway.”  This too ought to be part of the public dialogue when a majority is to be achieved only by the horse-trading. 

However, the horse-traders could argue that including the deals reflects the priorities in the society, and these ought to be reflected in a legislature.  Ethically speaking, a legislature should design its sausage-making in such a way that such priorities are reflected even as they do not enable legislation that only a minority want on its merits apart from the priorities.  How to distinguish priorities from overreaching is the difficult problem facing us both ethically and in terms of legislative process.  Ah, but there’s the rub; what reforms would institute this messy ethical distinction?  Applied ethics may not be sausage-making, but it is messy nonetheless.

Click to add a question or comment on the ethics of legislating.

For Rep. Dreier’s quote, pls see: