David R. Henderson  

One Congressman Can Sometimes Do a Lot, Part II

Global warming phonies... Against Robotic Panic...

I posted yesterday about Justin Amash's Cato University speech. Below is most of the rest of it. I'm putting his parts in block quotes. The italics are his. My comments follow where appropriate. I'll end with comments on Public Choice.

We hear so often: "I'm only one person. What can I possibly do?" Well, I'm here to tell you firsthand that one person's efforts really can make a difference. But making that difference doesn't happen overnight. You have to lay the groundwork. In this case, it wouldn't have been possible if my staff and I didn't operate the way that we do--if we didn't believe strongly in following the Constitution, in reading every bill, in consistency and the rule of law. These things have earned me trust from my colleagues--especially on due process, civil liberties, and privacy--and respect from other offices for my staff.

We do hear that. And my own view had been that while a U.S. Senator might have some power, a lone member of the House of Representatives could not. But he makes a good point: it's partly about brand name and reputation.
A few weeks earlier, in mid-June, the Orlando shooting happened. The following week, a bill called the Homeland Safety and Security Act, H.R. 5611, appeared on the legislative calendar. It was introduced by Majority Leader McCarthy as a response to Orlando, and it included one short, terrifying section that mirrored the Republican-backed Cornyn proposal the Senate had voted down the week before. It allowed the Department of Justice and a judge to deny gun purchases to anyone investigated for terrorism within the last five years (i.e., on one of those secret government lists) merely upon probable cause to believe that the person will commit an act of terrorism. Not that the person had committed an act of terrorism, or had conspired or attempted to commit terrorism, but that he or she will commit terrorism in the future.

McCarthy seemed to think that government is almost mistake-free. It's good that Justin Amash was there.
Having judges make factual, legally binding determinations of what an innocent person will do is not the practice of a free society--it's precrime; it's something out of the film Minority Report. Due process requires more.

Exactly. Minority Report was supposed to be a fictional warning, not a handbook.
We issued a statement through the House Liberty Caucus, blasting the bill and telling my colleagues we would be scoring against it. I filed an amendment to strike the gun section from the bill. That night, I went to a meeting of the House Freedom Caucus (not to be confused with the House Liberty Caucus!). At the start of the day, almost no one else opposed the bill--at best, they were neutral--but one by one, members were convinced to oppose it. And before the meeting adjourned, HFC took an official position against it. The Democrats also were expected to oppose it (because it wasn't dystopian enough), so without HFC's support, the bill didn't have enough votes to pass. Soon after, leadership quietly pulled it from the calendar. We never voted on it.

Speaker Ryan was later asked about the bill at a press conference, and he said, "We're not going to take away a citizen's constitutional rights without due process." Remember, this was the Cornyn proposal that Republicans had been lauding. This was Republican leadership's bill in the House. It was offered by the majority leader. It was supposed to pass with overwhelming Republican support. But here was Speaker Ryan on TV suggesting it violated due process! I had made the constitutional argument that convinced my colleagues, and here it was, being echoed in the speaker's remarks.

In short, one man turned Speaker Ryan around.
Now, this victory, along with the other victories over the past couple [of] months, was modest. But these are just small examples of what's possible with this approach to legislating. Abiding by the Constitution, upholding the rule of law, and applying principles consistently doesn't just allow me to take the right votes--it also makes me more effective at defending liberty in the halls of Congress.

It's this kind of story that causes me to think that Public Choice theory is fairly undeterminative. Who could have predicted that one man could turn things around like that. The bills were potentially big bills with huge consequences. Where were the interest groups? What would Public Choice theorists have predicted? Is the theory so fragile that in some cases it can be refuted by one member of a 435-member body?

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CATEGORIES: Public Choice Theory

COMMENTS (11 to date)
Yaakov writes:

David, thanks for your optimism. You are right that one person can make a difference. I sadly note, however, that on the other side there are many many one persons who also can make a difference. As long as there are no real limits to government power, the direction is clear. In the long run we will have the maximal amount of government that will not bring an immediate crisis.

John writes:

435 Angry Men

Scott Sumner writes:


Hazel Meade writes:

It's definitely easier for one person to make a difference, when that one person is a congressman.

AGJ writes:

@David -

I find your post odd. It's like saying "Raising the minimum wage did not result in any layoffs for company X; therefore, arguments against minimum wage must be undeterminative" or "the price of beer fell near campus when college students returned to campus; perhaps the theory that the demand curve for goods and services slopes downward is undeterminative."

It's anecdotal. It's great that he's a supporter of free markets, but it doesn't undermine the main tenets of Public Choice because we witness phenomena in government explained by Public Choice everyday. On the margin, I'd still expect that he faces perverse incentives through cost/benefit separation, limited knowledge, ect. because he still makes decisions in an environment of bad institutions.

It's a matter of degree, not kind.

Nathanael Snow writes:

Public Choice provides a set of assumptions that are intended to be robust to knavery.

Yes, that leaves the models vulnerable to angelic behavior.

But the constraints Public Choice recommends need not be binding on angels to be helpful.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

If the bill would deliver a coherent rent to some interested party, it probably would have been more of a fight.

It was simply a "tough on terrorism" signal.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

To someone who has followed the development of The Theory of Public Choice

from its earliest iterations (Gordon Tullock)
and the investigations of processes of Group Decision Making, it is somewhat disconcerting to read into this 435 member group decision process, a Public Choice issue.

No doubt we are observing "non-market" conduct, but where that conduct (legislative process) falls in the field of comparative motivational studies is probably somewhere outside the parameters of the earliest or subsequently developed "Public Choice Theory."

Khodge writes:

It is sad to think that only one congressman is doing this. Why, for instance, is this not a function of the whole Liberty Caucus?

From an accountant's perspective, crucial functions should never be entrusted with one person. It sounds like even within his own staff he abides by that principle, so why not within the Caucus as a whole? (Might this be where a public choice issue is pointing?)

David R. Henderson writes:

@Nathanael Snow,
But the constraints Public Choice recommends need not be binding on angels to be helpful.
Actually, Public Choice as a positive theory does not recommend any constraints. I agree with you, though, if what you mean is that many Public Choice economists recommend those constraints and that those constraints, as you say, “need not be binding on angels to be helpful.”
My point is a positive one, not a normative one.

Plucky writes:

What makes public choice undeterminative, especially about Congress, is that most forms of it implicitly assume high quality information. That is a terrible assumption to make about Congress.

If you really want to understand how Congress actually behaves, it's mostly about information- quality of information, sources of information, etc. Congressmen specialize their knowledge and build for themselves personal networks of other congressmen whom they trust on things they know little about, which the supplement with outside sources like favored think tanks, activist groups, lobbyists, etc. The majority of congressmen are, considered individually, reasonably intelligent, well-meaning, public-spirited people. This is why, when they get face to face with their constituents, they almost always win re-election and fend off primary challengers. The biggest reason for the collective incompetence of Congress as a body is that they are working with information that is of poor quality and often deliberately manipulated.

Congressional staffs are mostly populated by eager-beaver, poli-sci/history double majors who come from affluent backgrounds and have never been outside a politics-centric work or social environment. They are hard working and diligent, but utterly ignorant about anything that involves technical knowledge or requiring math harder than interest rate calculations. The people with anything approaching expertise on many issues are dedicated committee staff with 5+ years experience.

Because building your intra-congressional brand on expertise/reliability on an issue is a choose-your-own adventure system, many fields of knowledge simply have no one in congress competent in them. This tends to be true the farther away you get from law and the closer you get to math-y or technical fields. The result is that congress has to rely on lobbyists for any sort of information in that regard. Most lobbyists actually work for trade associations rather than for specific lobbying firms. Trade associations are usually considered by policy types to be purely lobbying outfits, but most of them are also in the business of developing and managing industry technical standards, for which they need and have large staffs of technically proficient people (classic example is the American Petroleum Institute. They publish enormous quantities of technical specifications and manage engineering certifications. Petroleum engineers usually have no idea they also lobby congress and policy people usually have no idea how many engineers they employ). For many things, the trade association staffs are the only people in DC that know anything at all about some issues.

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