The LegSim Blog
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Civility in Congress: A historical perspective
In a democratic society, dispute resolution is a central function of government. Put another way, we don’t elect leaders to enact policies that we all support. We elect them so that we can move forward despite our disagreements (and without resorting to violence).
If the public is strongly divided, we shouldn’t be surprised if things sometimes get heated in Congress. However, both the House and Senate recognize that casting insults (or worse) usually isn’t the best way to make progress on the issues that matter to voters. Indeed, such behavior probably has the opposite effect.
Rule XIX in the Senate and Rule I (clause 2) of the House seek to promote constructive debates by (in effect) requiring that members disagree respectfully. For the most part, these rules seem to work, but there have always been exceptions. The New York Times has an interesting article about some historical transgressions.
Where do students find ideas for their bill proposals?
Students will typically pay attention to what’s already on the national agenda or they will propose something that is very relevant to their lives. Legislation addressing marijuana legalization, health care reform, gun control or gun rights is not uncommon. But such issues are often less interesting from a learning perspective than are more novel ones. It’s great when students use the assignment as an opportunity to ‘think outside the box’ by exploring more broadly.
Here’s an example from the Vox. The key sentence in the article, ‘The percentage of fill has never been codified’ means that there are no laws regulating how much empty space a box of candy (or whatever) can have. Opportunity! But what’s also nice about such novel issues is that they usually turn out to be more complex (and more interesting) than students initially appreciate.
In this case, for example, the goal of the legislation would be to prevent intentional efforts to mislead consumers into paying more for a product than they expect. But .some products do settle in shipping. Wouldn’t penalizing those manufacturers be unfair? Should the new law only apply to some kinds of food? Doesn’t the same complaint apply to things besides food (stick deodorants for example)? How do we balance the potential benefits and costs of a policy change to decide whether it is worthwhile? Might there be a better way to address the problem?
There are lots of resources for discovering problems in society. One of our favorites is Pro-Publica, and independent, nonprofit investigative new organization.
New research article about teaching with LegSim
Congratulations to Professors Bethany Blackstone and Elizabeth Oldmixon (University of North Texas) on their new article describing the benefits and challenges of using LegSim to teach legislative process!
1/22 Looking ahead to the 2018 midterms
Will Republicans retain control of Congress in the next election? Political scientists have been developing statistical models to predict midterm election outcomes since the 1970s. The general pattern is that the president’s party almost always loses some seats – the question is how many it will lose.
These models demonstrate that macro-level factors such as the state of the economy and presidential approval are important predictors of seat loss. Usually presidential approval is high when the economy is doing well. 2018 is unusual and interesting in that we (currently) have a president with very low approval ratings at a time of high economic performance.
But its not just about public opinion. The Republicans have about a 45 seat advantage in the House and a 9 seat advantage in the Senate. Only about 40 out of all 435 House seats are considered competitive, while about three-fourths of the 34 Senate seats up for election in 2018 are currently held by Democrats. To win control of Congress, Democrats don’t just have to pick up some seats – they have to win most of the competitive races in the House and Senate while holding their own in the others.
Another variable is whether the parties are able to recruit capable and well-funded candidates. In this respect, 2018 should be a good recruitment year for Democrats (due to President Trump’s low approval rating). But research also finds that the party in power can limit such effects by defying the conventional wisdom and successfully recruiting and funding quality candidates of its own.
Finally, there’s the question of turnout. In midterm elections turnout is typically much lower than in Presidential elections. This means that higher than expected turnout by supporters of one party can have a big impact on outcomes (as we saw in the recent Alabama Senate race). Will Democrats and Republicans be equally motivated to show up at the polls in 2018?
1/7 Consider subscribing to Roll Call!
Roll Call offers daily insights into what’s going on in Congress and in Washington and well as occasional lessons about lawmaking. It’s as easy as entering your email at the bottom of their home page. They are also on twitter of course.
2/15 The President, the Courts and Congress
This past weekend, Senior advisor to President Trump Stephen Miller asserted that we have three co-equal branches of government. Miller was criticizing the federal court decision to suspend the immigration ban, and seemed to suggest that the administration might not comply with future court decisions because the courts cannot tell the President what to do.
In a very narrow sense, Miller is correct. The Constitution does not explicitly give courts the authority to review whether decisions by Congress or the President are constitutional. The Supreme Court claimed this power in the case of Marbury vs. Madison in 1803, arguing that the “interpretation of the laws is the proper and peculiar province of the courts. A constitution is, in fact, and must be regarded by the judges as, a fundamental law.”
Did Miller make a mistake or was he threatening that the administration might test this longstanding precedent by ignoring a future court ruling? This prospect recently led Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to assure listeners on a radio talk show that “under the Constitution, all of our actions are subject to judicial review.” Stay tuned!
2/9 The Sit Down and Shut Up Rule
The House and Senate have rules of decorum that prohibit members from making disparaging remarks about other members. According to ABC News, Section 2 of Senate Rule 19 was created in 1902 “in response to a literal fistfight that broke out on the Senate floor. Then Sen. John McLaurin of South Carolina raced into the Senate chamber and claimed that fellow South Carolinian Sen. Ben Tillman had told a “willful, malicious and deliberate lie” about him.”
The more general purpose of rules of decorum is to create an environment where representatives feel free to speak for their constituents without being attacked personally.
Of course, chambers rules are enforced by the chamber, so they may not always be applied in a non-partisan manner. A majority of the Republican-controlled Senate supported the chair’s ruling that Senator Warren violated Section 2, which meant that she had to take her seat for the duration of the debate.
2/1 The Veep Steps in?
When two Senate Republicans (Collins and Murkowski) announced that they could not support the confirmation of Betsey DeVos for Secretary of Education, the vote looked to be 50-50.
Then things got more complicated. Senator Jeff Sessions was about to be confirmed as Attorney General. But if Session was confirmed, then the vote for DeVos would be 49-50.
So Senate Republicans changed the calender to put the confirmation of DeVos before Sessions, and if nothing changes, Vice President Pence will cast the tie deciding vote to confirm her.
11/10 Sizing up the new Republican Congress
Republicans have a unified government but they do not have a 60 vote filibuster-proof majority in the Senate (they have 52 seats). Does this mean the Democrats hold the ‘trump’ card? Not necessarily!
Reconciliation. In the Senate, legislation that adjusts current spending to meet the requirements of a budget resolution passed by Congress cannot be filibustered. Democrats used the reconciliation process to pass portions of the Affordable Care Act. Expect Republicans to use it to pass tax reform and more.
Demise of the filibuster? Republicans were incensed when Democrats eliminated the filibuster for lower level executive and judicial appointments. Now that the tables have turned, Republicans will certainly consider eliminating it for Supreme Court nominations and possibly for all legisation (though the latter seems much less likely).
Death by a thousand cuts. Most programs depend on annual appropriations (funding) provided by Congress. A law that can’t be repealed can still be starved to death. However, appropriations bills can be filibustered which provides one constraint on such actions.
Unilateral presidential action. Many recent Democratic policies were not created by Congress but by executive orders, agreements and memoranda. Many of these policies can be similarly reversed by the signature of the new President.
Vulnerable Democrats. In 2018, 25 of the 33 senators up for reelection are Democrats and a significant number represent states that voted for Trump. These senators may find it difficult to support the Democratic leadership on some issues.
11/5 New Group Active Learning activities uploaded to Assignments
Masters of Procedure, Five Questions (bill drafting), Why Committees?, Should I be Allowed to Vote?
11/4 Active Learning Tips
Added tips for one off active learning exercises to the Instructor/Assignments page
11/4 Is democracy failing?
At its most basic level, democratic theory assumes that people vote their interests, giving elected officials incentives to be responsive to those interests. But do people really vote their interests? A central theme of recent research is that many people don’t vote their interests because they are poorly informed about what government does or base their votes on things that have little to do with government performance.
If policymakers are not held accountable for the right things, then democracy probably won’t work. Several scholars have recently argued that we should reimpose voter qualifications (until 1975, states used to administer citizenship tests at the polls). But it’s not so simple because the people who are most likely to be excluded tend to have different interests than those who would be able to vote.
Here’s a thought provoking article “Fractured Franchise: Are the wrong people voting” that includes references to other relevant studies. We have recently added a group active learning exercise related to this subject.
Militias explained? And here’s another article by the Dalai Lama that offers another thought-provoking explanation for why politics has become so negative. If he is right, what can elected officials do about it?
11/4 Democracy and active learning continued: The Dunning-Kruger Effect.
Dunning-Kruger argue that the less people know, the more confident they are in their knowledge. Why? Because they don’t know what they don’t know. The evidence comes from experiments involving students. Students who did poorly on tests tended to overestimate how well they would do, whereas students who did well tended to underestimate how well they would do.
Democracy: If correct, this theory suggests that the least informed voters will be the most confident about their political views. Google Dunning-Kruger and politics will produce a number of journalism articles suggesting that it can help to explain recent political events.
Active learning: One of the benefits of well-designed active learning exercises is that they help students discover that they know less than they think they know. This realization can help to motivate interest in the subject. Instructors also have better information and can adjust their lectures accordingly.