David R. Henderson  

Ezra Klein: Pass Laws, Be Productive

PRINT
David Brooks Repeats Himself... The Contributions of William T...

Ezra Klein claims that the current Congress is "one of the very worst congresses we have ever had" and then claims to "prove it." He gives 14 reasons. Reason #1 is "They're not passing laws." What's his implicit assumption? That passing laws is good. But doesn't that depend on whether the laws are good? Apparently not.

Reason #1 is not consistent with even his own criteria that he normally brings to laws. Consider his 7th reason: That the House of Representatives has voted 33 times to repeal ObamaCare and hasn't succeeded. What if they had succeeded? Then that would have counted as a success by his criterion implicit in reason #1. So if we take this criterion literally, repealing ObamaCare would have been good. I think repeal would have been good, but I'm pretty sure Mr. Klein doesn't.

Or consider the 107th Congress. It didn't pass a lot of laws, compared to Congresses in recent years. But, eyeballing his graph, I conclude that it passed about triple the number of laws passed in the current Congress. One of the laws passed by the 107th was the USA PATRIOT Act. Again, that counts as a success in his metric because he judges Congress by the number of laws passed. I think it was a bad law. What does he think?


Comments and Sharing


CATEGORIES: Revealed Preference



COMMENTS (40 to date)
Daniel Kuehn writes:

This didn't pass the smell test, David:

"But doesn't that depend on whether the laws are good? Apparently not."

So I took a look at the rest, and #2, #4, #5, #8, and #10 seem to indicate pretty clearly that it matters a lot to Klein whether the laws are good. Many others speak to the point a little more indirectly.

If it sounds that ridiculous, there's a good chance you might be misreading him.

Holding all else constant, the Congress seems to be having more and more trouble passing anything. Since their whole point is to represent the people in passing legislation, that's disconcerting and it makes sense to be at the top of the list.

Of course, all else is not held constant - that's only one thing to consider - and Klein seems pretty clear about that.

Dave T writes:

You are kind of doing yourself a disservice to even respond to the economic illiteracy/political hackery that Ezra Klein espouses.

But yeah, Reason #1 is pretty absurd. No one ever judges a Congress by how many bad laws that they repeal (by which almost every congress would be judged as terrible).

RPLong writes:

As someone who passionately opposes ObamaCare, I wonder why some news commentary out there keeps insisting that 33 votes to repeal it are "a waste of time."

Consider: Would that have been true about slavery, had it been tried? Would 33, 34, 57, or 836 votes to abolish slavery have been a waste of time?

Even if certain things have "no chance" of being enacted by federal bicamery, some things are worth the symbolism, and I believe this is one such case.

Greg G writes:

I have to agree with Daniel on this one. There is nothing in the Klein piece to suggest that he thinks that it is not possible to pass a bad law. He simply feels there are a lot of problems that Congress should be addressing and that the sharp drop in laws passed is a quick and easy measure of a kind of dysfunctional paralysis.

The idea that this means he thinks one more law is always better is a very flimsy strawman.

Ted Levy writes:

Daniel Kuehn: " Since [Congress'] whole point is to represent the people in passing legislation, that's disconcerting and it makes sense to be at the top of the list"

Is THAT Congress' "whole point?" Could it not perhaps instead be that Congress's reason d'être is to represent the people in political decision-making? It might then follow that if "the people" (say, those majorities in polls who believe government is too big) want fewer laws, passing fewer laws IS "represent[ing] the people."

David R. Henderson writes:

@Daniel Kuehn,
You wrote:
Since their whole point is to represent the people in passing legislation
That’s exactly the view I’m taking on.
@RPLong,
Consider: Would that have been true about slavery, had it been tried? Would 33, 34, 57, or 836 votes to abolish slavery have been a waste of time?
Good point. In fact, I find it a refreshing change for conservative Republicans to do this. Their old MO was to give up as soon as they lost a crucial vote.
One thing I learned while in the Reagan White House and while following politics generally is that two kinds of groups, roughly speaking--left Democrats and lobbyists--got long-term success by raising the issue again and again. Even when I thought I had succeeded in killing a bad idea--most of them were from other parts of the Reagan administration and when I had a little time on my hands, I turned to bad ideas from Congress--the idea always came back. And they often won.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Ted Levy -
I'm not sure what else Congress is there for. You make a good point that there is no predetermined "right number" of laws. As a straightforward example, we could imagine them doing the exact same stuff but put it in some kind of omnibus bill so the number of bills declines. Or as you allude to maybe we just want them to pass less bills.

Fine. That's all fine.

But Klein's point is, it is harder and harder to pass any bill in Congress, even ones that have democratic backing. Congress is not functioning how it is supposed to function. If the people had less business to do, that would be one thing. That's not the problem - the problem is the peoples' business isn't getting done.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

As to Polarization Klein's # 3:

This actually does reflect the constituencies as they have developed over the last 3 H R election cycles.

See, James Q. Wilson Politics and Polarization Part I, The Tanner Lectures, Harvard November 2-3, 2005.

(Available Online)

Andrew writes:

It would probably come to quite a surprise to Mr. Klein (as well and Mr. Kuehn) to learn that the design of our government is to hinder legislation, not assist it.

If getting "the people's business done" is the role of government, we could probably do away with all the various layers and those pesky elections. After all, Government Knows Best.

Trespassers W writes:
Since their whole point is to represent the people in passing legislation

If your belief is widespread, that would explain the otherwise bewildering popularity of the politician's syllogism:

Something must be done. This is something. Therefore, this must be done.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Andrew -
Why would you think that would come as a surprise? Do you think I'm an idiot or something?

However, I don't think "hinder" is the right word. The design of our government is such that legislation requires the consent of multiple institutions which ensures that it's not passed without a determined consensus of several representative institutions (limited by a constitution, to boot).

All that having been said, the Congress is still the legislative body and is intended to pass legislation.

re: "If getting "the people's business done" is the role of government, we could probably do away with all the various layers and those pesky elections. After all, Government Knows Best."

Huh? Wouldn't that make it less likely that the people's business gets done?

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Trespassers W -
If that's really what you think of what I said than something was lost in translation. That's certainly not my view and I don't see how it's supported by my view.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

[Comment removed for rudeness. --Econlib Ed.]

Stella Baskomb writes:

Daniel, it took 5 attempts for you to lose your temper and be suspended. Some commenters don't need 5. So your 5 is like a good "at bat"...

Bravo.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Stella -
I did not lose my temper. The removed comment simply suggested the thread had a lot of substantiveless comments. If you email me I'm happy to give you the comment itself, but (for obvious reasons) I'm not going to reproduce it here.

It's not like I accused anyone of "political hackery".

Now that would be a rude comment.

I consider blog civility to be very important, and always have.

JamesFromPittsburgh writes:

I saw Klein's post and I thought that the failure of this Congress to pass laws is probably the best thing you can say about it.

Craig Richardson writes:

I agree with the premise of David's that just because there are fewer laws doesn't mean that's a bad thing. However, the notion that Republicans are for putting up a "good fight" regarding Obamacare is way off when one considers Heritage Foundation and the Republicans came up with the individual mandate in the first place. What this really looks like is a lot of taxpayer money wasted on scoring political points, with very little principle involved.

A few other points:

According to the World Bank governance surveys from 2010,

The U.S. has now fallen to 22nd place in terms of efficiency of governance (Singapore is first, followed by the Scandinavian countries). Meanwhile it's not in the top 10 most economically free countries anymore either.

It is 32nd in terms of corruption in government, behind places like Qatar and Uruguay.

The Chinese now trust free markets more than U.S. citizens, which I believe is tied to U.S. citizens loss of trust in the financial sector, and lack of criminal prosecutions over the fraud on Wall Street. (Kellogg/Booth study from U. of Chicago.)

In short, the bottom line is that our government needs to do less, but do it well, instead of our leaders being so eager to fight it out on Fox News.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Craig Richardson,
However, the notion that Republicans are for putting up a "good fight" regarding Obamacare is way off when one considers Heritage Foundation and the Republicans came up with the individual mandate in the first place. What this really looks like is a lot of taxpayer money wasted on scoring political points, with very little principle involved.
I don’t know enough about that to agree or disagree. I do have problem with your term “the Republicans.” They aren’t one undifferentiated mass. I would bet that the Republicans who pushed hardest on this, namely, the Tea Partiers, never favored an individual mandate. So should they let the fact that many of their predecessors were unprincipled stop them from being principled?

Trespassers W writes:
If that's really what you think of what I said than something was lost in translation. That's certainly not my view and I don't see how it's supported by my view.

You were the one that was defending Ezra Klein's ridiculous point in the first place; namely, that it's a bad thing that Congress isn't vomiting out laws at its usual pace. I read it twice -- it really isn't any deeper than that. It's flat-out inconsistent with his other points, but I'm supposed to pretend that it's not, and figure out what he (and now you) really means? If doing nothing is bad enough to be at the top of the list, as you pointed out, then doing something, even if ineffective or ill-advised or not really wanted by anybody, is, by implication, better. If that sounds like a silly conclusion, it's because it was a silly premise.

joshua writes:

#4 involves some serious cherry-picking, as I've previously argued here. The popularity and polarization arguments are pretty good, though. And I don't see how anyone can think the increase in permanently-extended "temporary" rules is a good thing (unless, of course, it's actually not worse than it used to be).

But #1 is really very simple. Klein is probably biased to believe that laws passed by Congress are generally more good than bad, so a severe reduction is a net loss. I, on the other hand, am biased to believe that laws passed by Congress are generally more bad than good, so a severe reduction may actually be an improvement.

Craig Richardson writes:

@DavidHenderson


Ezra Klein does have a much more interesting piece , called "Unpopular Mandate."

I believe that the relevant Republicans have not done a good job explaining the philosophy behind why they initially supported the mandate, and why they are now against it. Romney has done an awful job of explaining why it's good for MA but not good for the country.

From Klein's New Yorker article:

The mandate made its political début in a 1989 Heritage Foundation brief titled “Assuring Affordable Health Care for All Americans,” as a counterpoint to the single-payer system and the employer mandate, which were favored in Democratic circles.

....

The mandate made its first legislative appearance in 1993, in the Health Equity and Access Reform Today Act—the Republicans’ alternative to President Clinton’s health-reform bill—which was sponsored by John Chafee, of Rhode Island, and co-sponsored by eighteen Republicans, including Bob Dole, who was then the Senate Minority Leader.

Read more http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/06/25/120625fa_fact_klein#ixzz20t8LBU9f

David R. Henderson writes:

@Craig Richardson,
Just so you know, what I was saying I didn’t know enough about to agree or disagree on was not the role of many Republicans and conservatives in pushing for a mandate. I did know that.
The thing I don’t know enough about was the issue you addressed: the motives of the various Republican players now. Notice that you mention Bob Dole. He’s not in Congress any more. I was trying to get you not to lump people together as “the Republicans” but, rather, to see them as individuals. If you could point to more than a handful of the dozens of Tea Party congressmen who at one time favored the mandate, that would be more persuasive.

Craig Richardson writes:

@David Henderson,

Fair enough, they are individuals. I think the Tea Party congressmen haven't been in office long enough to have weighed in on this when it was first in the corner of the group of sponsoring Republicans...

We will have to see if over time they will be captured by the system by facing ongoing tests to their principles vs. politics (and their own careers in Washington). My feeling is that there hasn't been enough time elapsed yet to make either claim, but we've seen plenty of politicians reverse positions from principle when their re-election prospects are dimmed.


Ken B writes:

Daniel Kuehn:

This didn't pass the smell test, David:[DRH:]"But doesn't that depend on whether the laws are good? Apparently not."
So I took a look at the rest, and #2, #4, #5, #8, and #10 seem to indicate pretty clearly that it matters a lot to Klein whether the laws are good. ...there's a good chance you might be misreading him.

No, I think you are reaching for an excuse. Point 1 drags on for some length and faint-praises even Newt Gingrich, rare for Klein you will agree? [Better: it is not very unreasonable to find this unusual :)] Klein quite clearly believes that producing laws is a good thing, regardless of their quality. This could for instance reflect the belief that such laws represent the 'will of the people' in action, and that that is a good thing even when unwise. That's not an uncommon instinct on the Left.

Looked at that way his point 2, 'they're unpopular', dovetails nicely. They are unpopular because they are not expressing the 'will of the people' effectively or assertively. More laws, more assertion of will, more popular.

I think David has it right this time. It would not be very unreasonable to call this a common occurrence ...

Yancey Ward writes:

Suffice it to say that in 2003-2005, Klein would not have written such a point #1, and in fact would have applauded a Congress that didn't pass many laws.

Daniel Kuehn, you wrote the following:

All that having been said, the Congress is still the legislative body and is intended to pass legislation.

re: "If getting "the people's business done" is the role of government, we could probably do away with all the various layers and those pesky elections. After all, Government Knows Best."

Huh? Wouldn't that make it less likely that the people's business gets done?

The first part is inaccurate. Congress isn't "intended to pass legislation". It is intended to pass appropriate and needed legislation.

On the second part, I think you missed the implication of Andrew's point- you are just assuming that Congress isn't responding to the people's desires by passing very little, in almost exactly the same manner as the original Klein essay.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Yancy -

re: "The first part is inaccurate. Congress isn't "intended to pass legislation". It is intended to pass appropriate and needed legislation."

I completely agree. Come on, now. What would you think if I said:

"That's inaccurate Yancy. Congress isn't "intended to pass appropriate and needed legislation", it's actually intended to pass appropriate, needed AND CONSTITUTIONAL legislation."

re: "On the second part, I think you missed the implication of Andrew's point- you are just assuming that Congress isn't responding to the people's desires by passing very little, in almost exactly the same manner as the original Klein essay."

I'm not sure where you're getting that. I'm not making that assumption at all.

OK, I better quit before I say something "rude".

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Ken B. -
re: "Klein quite clearly believes that producing laws is a good thing, regardless of their quality."

Nonsense.

Look, if you all really think that's what he thinks, then I'll agree with you that it is an entirely indefensible position to take.

But there doesn't seem to be any evidence that he thinks this at all. He lists lots of characteristics of good legislation that he takes the Congress to task for. He clearly distinguishes between "good legislation" and "bad legislation".

We have two options:

1. Read #1 in complete isolation - not as a ceteris paribus kind of statement about institutional functionality - and thus conclude that Ezra Klein is a complete moron (because there really wouldn't be an other word for such a position), or

2. Read and recognize everything else he writes in the post, recognize that it's an institutional functionality argument, and recognize that of all people we could be talking about, Ezra Klein shows no signs of being a moron.

For some reason completely unknown to me many on here seem to have opted for #1 instead of #2. And the choice has not been well defended, in my opinion.

Ken B writes:

@Daniel Kuehn: I think you are ignoring the argument I made. I adumbrated a coherent and plausible reason why Klein might think doing something is good in itself. You don't grapple with it at all, just repeat your (previously implicit) "nonsense."

There is another explanation. Klein is a partisan hack. He wants to attack the congress to help Obama and democrats, and so he thinks up any plausible sounding pretext he can. 'Do nothing congress' is a plausible sounding complaint, so he uses that. Without careful thought, just a tool at hand. As DRH notes though, that has implications. David drew out one, convincingly. Klein might not explicitly endorse it, but it's a legitimate implication anyway.

Klein is making a Woody Allen complaint: the food is terrible. And such small portions!

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Ken B. -
Not ignoring, it just seemed like nonsense to me.

So take this from you: "Point 1 drags on for some length and faint-praises even Newt Gingrich, rare for Klein you will agree?"

I don't know why the length of the point matters, unless you're just commenting on style now. Klein is pretty clear on what he's praising Gingrich for: Congress can pass legislation even with divided government. Seems like a good point to me, right? None of this supports your argument or gives me reason to think it's a nonsense point. The length is irrelevant and the Newt Gingrich point speaks to my argument, not yours - that he's concerned with institutional functionality in the first point.

Next: "Klein quite clearly believes that producing laws is a good thing, regardless of their quality."

Again, nonsense. This isn't clear at all. Saying it after other people have said the same thing doesn't make it "quite clear", Ken.

Next: "This could for instance reflect the belief that such laws represent the 'will of the people' in action, and that that is a good thing even when unwise. That's not an uncommon instinct on the Left."

Again, you are making this claim about him. Do you have any evidence for it. This is not an argument I'm ignoring Ken. It's just another thing you are (this time speculatively) imputing to Klein.

Next: "Looked at that way his point 2, 'they're unpopular', dovetails nicely. They are unpopular because they are not expressing the 'will of the people' effectively or assertively. More laws, more assertion of will, more popular."

Yes. Popular will is necessary. But as you know, necessary is not sufficient. This argument is, once again, nonsense. I'm still not seeing an argument for why Klein is suggesting that more laws are good laws and democratic laws are good laws. Pointing out that Klein thinks good laws are democratic laws (whether you agree with that or not) is not the same as providing evidence that Klein thinks democratic laws are good laws.

Have I missed anything?

Still nonsense in my view.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Ken B. -
re: "There is another explanation. Klein is a partisan hack."

Careful - Lauren doesn't like rude comments.

Calling someone a partisan hack seems rude and insulting to me.

Ken B writes:

Caught you DK! If you read my comment carefully you will note I did not actually call Klein a hack. I said that was a possible explanation. My remark is in the subjunctive mood as it were, I am conjecturing.

Now for the other comment. Length indicates theat point 1 is intended to stand on its own, its not a throw away. "Congress can pass legislation even with divided government. Seems like a good point to me, right?" Yes -- IF passing legislation is the goal. Nothing there about the quality of it.

' Saying it after other people have said the same thing doesn't make it "quite clear", Ken.'

I didn't know I broke the only-say-it-once rule. I will remember that next time you comment on a Krugman post .... :) I was drawing a conclusion Daniel, from the attendant argument.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

It was rude of me to make the leap, Ken.

Still, for you to hide what are probably your actual views of Klein behind a hypothetical makes you a real [Comment removed for rudeness].


OK, I should really stop having so much fun with this...

Tony N writes:

B, Ken - Kuehn, Daniel --- 1-0

Ken B writes:
Still, for you to hide what are probably your actual views of Klein behind a hypothetical makes you a real [Comment removed for rudeness].
Agreed! And it is gratifying to have one's dexterity noticed!

:)

MikeM writes:

According to some sources, US federal law now numbers in the ten's of thousands of statutes. To me the reprieve of new laws is a good thing.

Calling someone a partisan hack seems rude and insulting to me.

I agree, but Republicans have been the more restrained party since at least 2006 when the likes of Olbermann, Maddow, Maher, Matthews and others have left rhetoric and bias that would make middle school children blush. And no, I've never heard Bill O'Reilly or Rush Limbaugh call Democrats "the party of the mentally challenged", unlike Maher about Republicans.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

MikeM -
Eh... I'm really not convinced any side of any particular fight is worse than the other. For some reason both sides, no matter what we're talking about, always think the other side is the one that's clearly out of line. From what I can tell everyone is about the same and these are human foibles. It can be very hard to see parity if you're looking at things from one particular perspective.

Tony N -
You might take a look at all the smiley faces. I think there is more hamming it up going on than actual fighting, on this point at least.

Tony N writes:

Daniel Kuehn,

You have a talent for finding subtext; even when it isn’t there.

Ken B writes:

I do appeciate Tony N's scoring (and if DK concedes it then we were in deadly battle) but in fairness I must say DK and I were also having a bit of back and forth on his blog simultaneously. So it's a bit of both, substantive arguemtn and hamming up. (Again though, if I won then it was mostly serious, with only a trace of ham!)

Yancey Ward writes:

Danil Kuhn wrote:

Come on, now. What would you think if I said:

"That's inaccurate Yancy. Congress isn't "intended to pass appropriate and needed legislation", it's actually intended to pass appropriate, needed AND CONSTITUTIONAL legislation."

Why didn't you write that the first time, is what I say. What you did write carries the implication that Congress is to pass anything- that is it's purpose. However, it's purpose to pass or not pass legislation. A Congress that passes no legislation whatsoever is not failing in it's purpose, right? What Klein wrote in #1 was just simply stupid, and beside the point you claim he was making in the rest of the essay.

Continuing:

re: "On the second part, I think you missed the implication of Andrew's point- you are just assuming that Congress isn't responding to the people's desires by passing very little, in almost exactly the same manner as the original Klein essay."

I'm not sure where you're getting that. I'm not making that assumption at all.

You seem to agree that a Congress not acting (on the points that Klein feels are important) is not getting the people's business done, as is it's purpose (your words). Andrew points out the assumption implied in that, or in question form- how do you or Ezra Klein know that a Congress doing nothing isn't the people's business and their directive? If you assume you know the answer, then why have elections at all? And note- we can turn this around on Klein, and ask him why the Senate hasn't passed the PPACA repeal passed by the House. Of course, if it had, Klein would have had to write a completely different essay attacking a do-something Congress.

Arthur_500 writes:

the old saying goes, it is better to sit quietly and let people think you are stupid than to open your mouth and confirm it.

I would suggest it would be better for the legislative branch to be more contemplative and cautious in passing laws. Regretfully they have knee-jerk reactions and often pass laws that sound good but really stink.

consider the Patriot Act or Dodd-Frank or Obamacare. Once you consider them you realize they are bad legislation and should be eliminated. In fact, they never should have been passed.

I would prefer quality to quantity in lawmaking. Of course we are dealing with fallible people with large egos who want to be loved, and re-elected. Even the founding fathers understood our government would be mediocre but that was preferable to the alternatives.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top