The basic premise of electoral politics is that it’s supposed to give your elected officials an incentive to do a good job. If they get into office and screw everything up, they’ll lose, and they know it, so they’ll at least try not to screw everything up. Right?
Now, try to hold that high-school civics idea in your head as you read this quote. It’s from Representative Greg Walden, Republican of Oregon, the deputy chairman of the House GOP campaign arm, explaining why he believes his party will hold onto its majority:
"My measure is, I'd rather be us than them," Mr. Walden said, drawing a contrast between his party and the Democrats. "We have more incumbents, they are doing their jobs, and this is an election that is a referendum on the president's policies."
Political scientists have long debated whether it is possible for voters to actually hold their elected officials responsible under divided government. If voters just use crude metrics like the state of the economy to judge the incumbent party, how can they figure out who to credit or blame if there are two incumbent parties sharing power?
The experience of the current House Republican party suggests that the dilemma is even worse than the pessimists considered. The trouble here is not just one for the voters. What if the politicians in Congress come to understand that the voters are not judging their behavior at all? The evidence shows that people tend to vote in large part on the state of the economy, and they also hold the president solely responsible for it. Now add to that an opposition-controlled Congress that believes, plausibly, that it is running in an election that is a referendum on the president.
Suppose my editors told me that my pay would be entirely based on their evaluation of Dan Amira’s performance, not on my performance. Would I work as hard? Probably not. Now alter that scenario so that my success is inversely tied to Dan’s, so if he fails, I get more money, and if he succeeds well enough, I may lose my job. And then imagine I have a lot of ability to make life hard on him — he can’t publish anything unless I sign off on it. This probably wouldn’t result in us publishing a very good blog.
This set of incentives would certainly explain pretty much everything the Republicans have done since taking control of the House. Ezra Klein has a good primer on the sheer awfulness of congressional governance since 2011 — the worst parts being the GOP’s decision to turn the debt-ceiling vote from an opportunity for out-party posturing into a white-knuckled game of chicken that has severely impaired the economy:
To the extent that the debt-ceiling fiasco did retard the recovery, this would count, by the GOP’s own logic, as a sheer political masterstroke. It probably was not an unmitigated one: As the debt-ceiling hostage crisis took its toll on the economy last summer, business leaders were complaining to the GOP leadership. But Obama's approval ratings were also tanking, and since this appears to be the primary metric the House majority used to gauge its own standing, the main signal Republicans received during this episode was positive. Concurrently, everything else Republicans did to screw up — bungling routine transportation reauthorizations and so on — was success. And passing Obama's jobs bill, which macroeconomic forecasters unanimously believe would substantially increase economic growth, would be unthinkably stupid.
Walden didn’t actually make all that explicit, of course. What he said was alarming enough: that Republicans in the House regard their electoral fates to be a referendum on Obama. From that premise, a series of destructive incentives follow. It’s possible for Congress to disregard its own incentives and to sacrifice its own power for the short-term good of the country. But it doesn't feel reassuring to have to depend on a bunch of politicians consciously sacrificing their own ambitions.