Rules Rule

Hurray for procedural reform


The recent passage of the line-item veto may seem to be the least of the achievements of the disappointing 104th Congress. By itself it cuts no spending, reins in no regulation, ends no unnecessary program. All it does is change some rules. What good is that?

Back in November 1994, supercentrist Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute questioned the value of such reforms. In a Newsday op-ed, he attacked all of the Contract With America's procedural reforms–the line-item veto, term limits, and a balanced budget amendment–as part of a "campaign of Congress-bashing…to undermine further the basic legitimacy of the institution, making governing in the next two years more difficult." To the joy of Ornstein and others who see no benefit in enforced restraint on legislatures, the latter two reforms died ignominiously. Only the line-item veto survived.

Ornstein went on to complain, "Fear of crime in the streets, unhappiness with the educational system, unease about health care and uncertainty caused by dislocations of the global economy will not be reduced one iota by term limits, a line-item veto and a balanced budget amendment."

It stands to reason that someone who is blithely confident that an unshackled federal Congress could authoritatively solve those myriad crises would be leery of any attempt to restrain lawmakers from striding forward manfully and doing so. All three of the Contract's major procedural reform proposals would limit Congress's ability to exercise its will. Of course, that's exactly the point.

"The task of the lawgiver," wrote the political philosopher F.A. Hayek, "is not to set up a particular order but merely to create conditions in which an orderly arrangement can establish and ever renew itself." Our current system of runaway spending is not such a stable order.

Yet contemporary lawmaking seems to require willful ignorance of the law of unintended consequences. As a result, many lawmakers, and their pundit-boosters, can't imagine the possible indirect benefits of rule changes. They can't picture how such rules would help our political order "ever renew itself."

Experienced congressmen have to quit? We can't spend more than revenue projections? The president has a theoretical power to cut items from bills? So what, they argue. Congress could pass a balanced budget tomorrow if it really wanted to. People can vote their representatives out of office if they really want to. (Interestingly, the one reform that obviously can't happen on its own, the line-item veto, is the only one to pass.)

That same failure of imagination makes it hard to see the existing unintended systematic barriers that make it hard to just balance the budget or throw the bums out. But those barriers do exist, and only a rule change can surmount them.

And even on a direct level, procedural reforms can have obvious effects. A study in the Atlantic Economic Journal, analyzing data from fiscal year 1991, shows that a line-item veto seems to allow governors to balance budgets more easily. The study found average deficit percentages to be more than twice as large in states without line-item veto power than in states with it–and that's only for states with deficits. Only one state without a line-item veto had no deficit that year. The states' experience suggests that reform might help halt the constant piling-on of debt.

Hayek's work in political philosophy has another lesson for both partisans and opponents of procedural changes. Procedural reforms can do a lot–but we can never be entirely sure what they will do. We can reason out the advantages of not having legislators rooted in Washington for decades, or of not permitting them to spend wildly regardless of revenue. But all we can know for sure is that the results of such reforms will end up surprising everyone.

Still, opposition to procedural rule reform often springs from a general misunderstanding of proper government powers. Those who think the government can and should do most anything it wants–and that seems to include many Republicans as well as Democrats–are bound to reject rule changes that stop lawmakers from doing things they used to do with abandon, from staying in office forever to larding bills with irrelevant pork. Kudos to the Republican class of the 104th Congress for even bringing up such rule changes, and for squeezing through at least one of them. Next time, let's try three-for-three.