Legislative proposals must be judged not only as policy, but also as politics
Consider the following two undertakings:
- Policy analysis, of the sort think tankers, bloggers, and occasionally journalists do.
- Passing legislation through Congress, the kind of thing lawmakers, Congressional staffers, lobby groups, and occasionally the public do.
The first is about policy abstracted from politics. The second is about policy immersed in politics. The first makes use of scientific findings, economic models, and conceptual analysis. The second, by and large, does not. Congresscritters are rarely persuaded to vote for (or against) particular bills on the basis of white papers. They are persuaded by retail politics — arguments about how constituents/contributors in their states/districts will benefit/not from legislation. That’s how they keep their skins. So it ever has been; so it ever shall be. Democracy is the worst system of government except the alternatives, etc.
This is not to say that No. 1 is useless, or irrelevant to No. 2. (God forbid, it’s what I do with half my waking hours!) Good analysis can serve as a kind of guidepost or compass to show how close lawmakers are coming to the ideals of efficacy, fairness, etc. It can clarify choices.
Nonetheless, the two are often confused. Policy submits to policy analysis; people — people developing, endorsing, lobbying for, and passing legislation — submit to political analysis. Criticism of legislative proposals must perforce have two parts: how they fall short as policy, and how they fall short as politics, i.e., how stronger legislation is politically possible.
Making the latter case requires a decent sense of the political players involved. It has to show how lawmakers could be persuaded that their constituents’ interests, and/or their own political careers, are at stake. It requires a decent sense of the political dynamic: competing priorities, competing lobbies, and the tools available to those pushing to strengthen bills.
The class of people that actually knows about that stuff is much, much smaller than the class of people making confident pronouncements about it. Much like climate science, everyone who reads the interwebs claims expertise. In truth, an active RSS reader is no substitute for time spent communicating directly with the people involved. I’m only barely getting a handle on the breadth of what I don’t know.
What is the point of this windy digression? I guess that the green blogosphere should get serious about politics.
Yeah, maybe, e.g., USCAP falls short as policy. (I certainly think so.) But that’s not enough. It doesn’t claim to be the Pony Policy. It’s an effort to shift the political dynamic in a positive direction. The green groups involved made the calculation that sacrificing a bit on policy was worth getting a slate of large, influential corporations on record in support of not-terrible carbon legislation. They think that even with a more Dem-heavy Congress getting carbon legislation through is going to be a difficult fight, and that marking a point of consensus between NGOs and corporations will raise the floor for what’s expected. They expect that with two years of slow movement in the right direction, the businesses involved will ultimately be open to further movement.
Was that the right calculation? Perhaps not, but if you think so you have make a political argument, not just bash the lack of policy ponies. Some of the folks in those groups have been schlepping around the halls of Congress for decades. In addition to becoming Capitalist Running Dogs sucking up to the Corporate Man, it’s possible they also learned something, including the fact that you can’t make politics go away by stamping your feet.