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Monday, November 18, 2013

The Continual Campaign Eclipses Governance in Congress: Fixing Obamacare

The sordid, all-consuming encroachments of electoral politics into governance in the U.S. Congress could all-too-easily ride the entrails of Obamacare’s hemorrhaging web-site. Amid this undercurrent of political calculus under the subterfuge of governance and the public good, the public’s faith that the aggregation of the “producers’” self-interests will maximize or satisfice the general welfare remained invisible to the naked eye.
Let’s take the “fix it” vote that occurred in the U.S. House on November 15, 2013. Thirty-nine Democrats voted for the Republican-sponsored bill giving health insurers the option to continue selling plans not meeting the minimum standards in the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare). President Obama had said he would veto the bill because it “threatens the health security of hard working, middle class families.”[1] The sensationalistic conclusion reached by some journalists chastises the 39 Democrats for “breaking ranks” as if horses charging out of a barn billowing noxious smoke (fortunately those horses already had a solid health-insurance plan). Let’s not be so hasty in swallowing the media’s hay.
According to Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), only nine or so of the thirty-nine Democrats voting for the Republican bill had “real serious concerns” with the Affordable Care Act itself; the rest of the thirty-nine were “insulating themselves against sound bites.”[2] Many of the insulators considered themselves vulnerable to a Republican challenger in the next election and thus sought to deprive “the enemy” of an easy talking-point. Political self-preservation is a creed that no politician would recognize as a betrayal. “I don’t blame anyone for insulating themselves from these sound bites because that’s the world we live in, unfortunately,” Clyburn lamented.[3] I want to unpack this statement because I think “there’s gold under them there hills!”
Ridding a potential electoral opponent of as many baleful talking points as possible falls under the rubric of a political campaign rather than governance. So the thirty “defectors” motivated by reelection rather than policy were in the campaign mode while governing as legislators. Ultimately, refusing to stop skating on the ice in keep waving at spectators defeats the person’s own supposed goal to ice-fish—skating being a necessary means of reaching the hole and hut. In other words, the means becomes the end, while the original goal is tacitly dismissed like an unwanted step-child.
Burrowing still farther down, as though with a powerful 9-inch analytical drill-bit, I find traces of an stygian flow of hot, silent molten lava hitherto undetected (the smaller drills don’t cut it at this depth). What Clyburn takes as “the world we live in” may actually be better characterized as a faith, and an economic one at that! Rather than implying that economics undergirds all politics, I submit that a default assumption in politics borrows from an economic faith. Specifically, the faith preached by Adam Smith in 1776.

Adam Smith and his classic text.  Wikimedia Commons.

Smith conjectured that each producer oriented to his or her own enrichment contributes nonetheless to the common good via a competitive market. In other words, the greed of individuals aggregates into what is best for the whole. The faith lies in not merely this assumption, but also that no one is needed to steer the whole. Rather than having someone steer the economic car, its route is a result of each car-part functioning as designed. Think of Google’s driverless car. No intention or consciousness drives. Rather, where the car goes is a product of an aggregate of parts—each doing its job (with design here being a part’s self-interest). To take another analogy, imagine a ship like the Titanic with only a massive group of formidable rowers in the belly of metal. The ship’s path is a result of external forces and the aggregation of the rowers’ individual striving to be stronger than the other rowers. No one is on deck looking for icebergs. No one is supervising the rowers, and the rowers themselves cannot see outside. In the back of each rower’s mind is an assumption, a faith really, that the sum total of bronze effort will result in the best course for the ship.
In American political theory, the notion of ambition as a check on ambition is a well-known staple. The ambition here is in terms of power. I suspect that the American electorate tends to assume that the tussle of self-interests is over policy and thus has the effect of shedding it of bad ideas. However, to the extent that members of Congress working on a bill are really thinking about how to get reelected, then the bill that emerges (i.e., where the ship goes) is a function of the aggregate of campaign strategies rather than governance. Faith is indeed needed here, for reason I fear cannot provide us with a viable link; what might be in a representative’s electoral self-interest is not necessarily conducive to public policy that optimizes the public good or welfare. Even aggregating all such self-interests does not, I strongly suspect, is not in the interest of the whole—the polity or society. Admittedly, I have not thought this last point out enough to safely rule out a rationale that links campaigning while governing to optimal legislation for the good of the whole. What do you think? Is it dangerous for the American people to be left in the dark regarding what really motivates Congressional lawmakers, or does legislation by sound-bites (or campaign strategy) not detract materially from “the sausage” that is produced?

1. Seung M. Kim and Jennifer Haberkorn, “With 39 Dems Behind It, House Passes Obamacare Fix,” Politico, November 15, 2013.
2. Ashley Alman, “Jim Clyburn Accuses House Dems of ‘Insulating Themselves Against Sound Bites,’” The Huffington Post, November 18, 2013.
3. Ibid.