Wednesday, 7 October 2009

NSF: Non-Sufficient Funds for Political Science

I find myself in total agreement with Dan Drezner’s thoughts on Sen. Tom Coburn’s deeply asinine proposal to save less than $10 million per year by eliminating the National Science Foundation’s funding for political science research.

Of course, you can probably take this as self-interested pleading since I have been the direct beneficiary of approximately $1500 in (taxable) NSF-funded stipend money and an indirect beneficiary of its funding by having access to the American National Election Studies. And I’ll freely concede that in my ideal universe, the federal government wouldn’t spend $10 million/year on political science research, but in that same universe the government wouldn’t spend hundreds of times that amount on Medicare prescription drug benefits, enforcing about 90% of the regulations of OSHA, building “infrastructure to nowhere,” bailing out every dying domestic industry, and subsidizing the activities of the world’s best-paid farmers.

And, I’d be rather more impressed if Coburn (or his staff) actually understood what the ANES did in the first place; the funding (all of about $1 million per fielded survey, which includes several thousand face-to-face interviews with voters across the United States) doesn’t fund data analysis but the collection of original data that nobody else collects because pollsters—unlike social scientists—don’t really care why people hold the opinions they have. If the ANES simply duplicated the work of Gallup, Harris Interactive, Zogby, Research 2000, and the dozens of other polling houses doing work for political candidates and the media I’d gladly agree that the spending was misplaced. And if the Census Bureau weren’t legally prohibited from collecting much of this information (for good reason, I might add) a case could be made that using their resources would be less costly.

But the reality is that the “basic science” that Coburn thinks is having resources diverted away from it for frivolous research on understanding our political system is the type of research with practical applications that has the least necessity for governmental subsidy. Materials science research on “bone that blends into tendons,” “next-generation biofuels,” and “microchip-sized fans” are examples of applied research that can be easily commercialized where the private sector is essentially freeloading on the taxpayer—I see no obvious reason why medical implants companies, major energy concerns, and Intel or IBM or Texas Instruments (respectively) couldn’t fund these research projects themselves since there are fairly obvious financial benefits to them in the short-to-medium term. Certainly there’s a better case to be made for “market failure” in providing most social scientific research than there is for “hard” science research—which still receives the lion’s share of funding and is often supported not just by NSF, but also the Department of Energy and other federal research funds that dwarf the $10 million/year spent on the study of political phenomena.*

If there is a valid critique to be made here, it is that the NSF has strayed from being focused on grants for “basic” science into the applied and pedagogical realms that are beyond the NSF‘s core mission and are best left to private industry and other government agencies such as the Department of Education, respectively.

More on this theme from Henry Farrell, Andrew Gelman, and Joshua Tucker.

Update: There are further thoughts in this vein from Steven Taylor and Charli Carpenter. Farrell points out that this isn't the first time the NSF political science program has been a target. And "Miss Self-Important" takes an ambivalent view.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Old wine in new bottles

Apropos the recent return of debate over the filibuster, I’ll just point you to the Signifying Nothing archives for my proposed reform thereof:

What I’d do: tweak the Senate rules slightly, to require 2/5+1 to vote to continue debate upon a call for cloture, except when a unanimous consent agreement is in effect otherwise limiting the debate (this part allows for normal floor debate without gratuitous cloture votes). That would properly place the burden of sustaining the filibuster on its supporters, but not otherwise limit its use (unlike Bill Frist’s fundamentally silly “supermajority countdown” proposal).

Incidentally, the nice thing about having an ancient blog is that I’ve probably already discussed to death every topic under the sun. Now back to the dryer.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Footnote of the year

“I have witnessed members walk up to other members on the floor and simply start yelling at them for having cast a certain vote or committing some other perceived misstep.”—Rep. Daniel Lapinski, “Navigating Congressional Policy Processes.” In Lawrence Dodd and Bruce Oppenheimer, eds. Congress Reconsidered, 9th ed. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2009.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

A Republican Party That Can Say No

I am inclined to agree with Steven Taylor (and, by extension, disagree with Nate Silver and Kevin Drum) that it’s a bit early to assume that the House Republicans are just voting “no” in lockstep for the sole sake of being obstructionists.

For starters, the Republicans didn’t kill—merely delay—the ill-advised push to pretend* we’re delaying the digital TV transition. I also think this fits into the larger theme of a protest against Democratic efforts to circumscribe debate in the House; even if Senate Republicans agreed with Senate Democrats on the content of the DTV delay bill and it passed by unanimous consent (which isn’t a “unanimous vote” by the way), that’s no excuse for the House Democrats to rush it to the floor the next day under suspension of the rules—which allows exactly 40 minutes of debate followed by zero amendments—especially when there is a real consensus behind passing a “clean” bill providing coupon funding without the fake-delay provisions.

The fact of the matter is that pace Silver nobody is likely to remember either vote, particularly since the stimulus bill is going to bounce around the Hill several times, after which plenty of House Republicans will hail whatever (likely minimal) changes come out of conference as satisfying their concerns, and we’ll all go back to obsessing over Sasha Obama’s taste in hoodies or something much more important to the future of the republic.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

From the department of colossally good ideas (aka Congress)

Steven Taylor, Nate Silver, and Alex Knapp are all on-board with an amendment proposed by Sen. Russ Feingold to the U.S. Constitution to strip governors of their power to make long-term “temporary” appointments to the Senate. Since Feingold hasn’t released the text of his proposed amendment yet, I can’t consider the merits of his specific proposal, but in general I am supportive of the idea that a special election to fill a vacant seat should be held within 60–90 days of a senatorial vacancy. I’d also amend Article I, Section 2 to specify a similar, specific deadline for filling vacancies in the House of Representatives, but that is hardly a deal-breaker if omitted. Assuming there are no hidden catches, I hope Congress acts quickly to propose this amendment to the states, where I suspect it will be received warmly by the state legislatures—who, after all, do not require gubernatorial approval to ratify constitutional amendments.

At the same time, I hope this amendment (if it is ultimately successful, which I suspect it will be) helps dispel the modern myth that the Constitution is excessively hard to amend. In point of fact, throughout much of American history politically controversial amendments were proposed and ultimately adopted, including both the adoption and repeal of Prohibition, the extension of the right to vote to women, the abolition of the poll tax, the Civil War amendments (particularly the 14th and 15th amendments extending citizenship rights to ex-slaves), and the indirect taxation amendment that led to the federal income tax. Just because the Supreme Court in recent years has been willing to reinterpret the Constitution to better suit the often-evolving values of society (witness, for example, the magical constitutionalization of the Equal Rights Amendment absent its ratification*) does not mean that the document is too hard to amend and thus the Nine must reinterpret it instead, merely that it is easier to file an amicus curiæ brief than to work through the amendment process in Article V.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

On the motion to recommit

Over at OTB, I look at proposed changes in parliamentary procedure in the House which continue the chamber’s bipartisan slide towards majority-party dictatorship—or, perhaps to riff on Matthew Shugart’s observations regarding the House, irresponsible party government.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

More on the filibuster

The Economist gets in on the filibuster debate thusly:

What’s needed is less posturing and more discussion of when, exactly, a supermajority should be required to get something done in Congress. Right now the only constitutionally-required supermajorities are the two-thirds majority needed to remove an impeached official from office and the two-thirds majorities needed in both houses to pass constitutional amendments. Which other issues are important enough to get that treatment? Should a Supreme Court nominee require confirmation by a supermajority? Should either house of Congress do as California does, and require a two-thrids majority to pass a budget?

Approach the question another way: What sort of congressional actions should only require a simple majority vote? As much as Republicans and business interests fear the Employee Free Choice Act, why should Democrats need 60 votes to pass it? If voters were opposed to the concept, they could have avoided giving the Democrats the presidency and a net 14 Senate seats and 55 House seats over the last two elections.

They are sanguine about the prospects of a real debate over the role of the filibuster, though. And, again, I am forced to wonder how Harry Reid is supposed to “bully” Republicans into not exercising the privilege of unlimited debate since he lacks any effective institutional tools to engage in such bullying.

Monday, 15 December 2008

On the filibuster

Nate Silver thinks Harry Reid is being an ineffective Senate majority leader because he’s letting the GOP get away with holds without the traditional filibuster. However, as I pointed out here in 2003 (and also here later that year), the traditional filibuster is far more burdensome on the majority when the minority is bigger than a single senator; while you need 60 majority senators to be on-call to break the filibuster, all you need at any given point of time is a single minority senator to hold the floor.

Ultimately the “cot drama” makes for nice TV, but dragging out the cots probably won’t win him any friends among the supermajority of senators he needs to break the minority. These problems have also vexed other majority leaders of both parties—if there’s a common theme to in-partisans’ complaints about their majority leaders, it’s “ineffectuality,” without much recognition that Senate majority leaders are institutionally weak and individual senators like it that way. It probably doesn’t hurt that most senators have served in the House and the last thing they want is to have another Speaker trying to boss them around.

On a related topic, McQ points out that the bailout had enough GOP support in the Senate to pass if Reid had successfully herded his party’s cats. But again being a good cat-herder isn’t really the qualification that fellow senators want when choosing their majority leader, so I’m not sure anyone in Reid’s position would have been able to do a better job.

Thursday, 8 November 2007


One has to wonder what the logic is in vetoing a bill that passed originally with a veto-proof majority. Undoubtedly the $23 billion water resources authorization bill is laden with—a conservative estimate here—at least $20 billion in unneeded pork spending, but only the second thing you should get in front of when a politician is angling for it is free money for his or her district—the first thing, of course, being a camera.

Besides which, given the Democrats’ rate of progress on appropriations bills (proving if nothing else that appropriations laziness is a bipartisan affliction), I doubt we’ll ever see any of this money appropriated anyway.

I’m sure the Porkbusters are apoplectic—so apoplectic, in fact, they’ve neglected to update their website in four months. Anticipatory apoplexy?

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

House majority party treats minority party like crap, news at 11

Probably the most prominent feature of the past 30–40 years of American politics has been the near-simultaneous rise in party unity in the House and the evolution of aggressive majority-party control of the chamber.

To wit, the Democrats under Nancy Pelosi are behaving more-or-less identically with the Republicans under Newt Gingrich. John J. Pitney, Jr., chronicles the “old-boss, same-boss” dynamic here, with special demerits for Pelosi’s would-be right-hand-man, Jim John Murtha, who was given a pass on violating House rules on decorum after threatening retribution against a GOP lawmaker who proposed stripping funding from a pork project in Murtha’s constituency.

That isn’t to say that the majority party controls everything, even in the House; the bipartisan backers of bringing home the bacon appear to be behind this move to relocate pork-stuffing to conference committees, which will immunize pork provisions from being amended out of legislation. The Porkbusters Weenies™ are nervous, but as a political scientist, I’m just surprised it took the House that long to decide to lard up appropriations in conference.

Monday, 14 May 2007

Not-really-naked man causes havoc on Hill

Ah, if only this had happened two weeks ago I’d have had something worthwhile to talk about during the last week of my Congress course.

þ (via email): My former student Jim Swift, who now works on the south side of the Capitol.

Saturday, 28 April 2007

Unorthodox lawmaking

I was wondering out loud in my Congress class Friday when the Democratic leadership and the president would get around to actually hammering out a supplemental instead of the kabuki theater approach that seems to have prevailed in D.C. until this point.

Wednesday, 15 November 2006

More Trent, Less Fulfilling

Favorite Signifying Nothing whipping boy Trent Lott has gotten a second opportunity to demonstrate the validity of the Peter Principle thanks to the 25 clueless senators who elected him Senate minority whip for the 110th Congress, selecting him over Lamar! Alexander. Senate leadership positions on either side of the aisle aren’t exactly hotbeds of political power (thanks largely to the fundamental institutional feature of the Senate—the filibuster—that distinguishes it from the House), so the substantive effect of Lott being in the formal leadership will be approximately zero, but in terms of symbolism I can’t say I can conceive of a choice from the 49-member caucus that is worse than Lott. I mean, that would be like the Democrats appointing a former segregationist as president pro tempore of the Senate or something.

The small bit of silver lining: the Porkbusters weenies are restless. Heh.

Wednesday, 11 October 2006

The new gay scare

Nice to see NBC getting in on the act of insinuating gay men are all pedophiles:

Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) took two male pages with him on a three-day camping trip in 1996, former congressional pages and National Park Service officials tell NBC News. The pages, who were 17 at the time, went rafting and camping with Kolbe in the Grand Canyon over the July 4th holiday that year.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Kolbe confirms the overnight trip but says that the pages did not travel alone with Kolbe. The congressman’s sister was on the trip, along with office staffers and several Park Service employees, says Kolbe spokeswoman Korenna Cline. Gary Cummins, the deputy superintendent of Grand Canyon in 1996, tells NBC News that he also was on the trip with Congressman Kolbe. He confirms that two young men were on the trip with Kolbe, as part of a larger group. ...

Congressman Kolbe is the only openly gay Republican congressman. He has been active with the congressional page program for years, and was himself a page in 1958 for Sen. Barry Goldwater.

I didn’t realize the congressional page program was designated as the feeder program for the DC chapter of NAMBLA. Thanks for the memo, NBC.

I look forward to similar NBC exposés about every other instance in which a gay person went camping with a large group including at least one person under the age of 18.

Friday, 6 October 2006

Your obligatory Mark Foley post

Mike Munger contributes a top ten list that pretty much covers everything.

Monday, 5 June 2006

Abolish the conference?

Steven Taylor posts an interesting column on the strange beast known as the conference committee, probably the most secretive part of the contemporary legislative process in Congress. While I’m not sure I concur with Steven’s conclusion that conferences should be abolished, I do think making them more accountable to the floor of both the House and Senate, or instituting rules circumscribing the scope of the amendments that a conference committee can make to reconcile the two bills, would be a good thing.

Friday, 20 January 2006

Confounding factors

I’d be curious what rival explanations my methods classes might come up with for this graph beyond “the obvious.” At least one structural feature of Congress leaps out at me as a possible explanation… can anyone identify it?

Sunday, 12 June 2005

TEA-21 renewal finally getting somewhere

Monday’s Washington Post reports that conference negotiators are finally getting somewhere on the renewal of the federal transportation authorization bill, which expired 21 months ago. The reason for the sudden burst of progress: members of Congress are sick and tired of wrangling over the bill:

“I just want to get it all over with,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said as final negotiations began Thursday.

At stake are around $290 billion in road, rail, and transit projects over the next six years (well, four years and three months, at this point). The same article also reports that the Senate may actually come up with a workable compromise on the energy bill. The stars must really be aligned this month or something…

Also on the roads beat, an interesting article on the trend toward building more toll roads recently appeared on Wired News. One such project is North Carolina’s proposed Triangle Parkway, an extension of the Durham Freeway south to the I-540 Western Wake Expressway through Research Triangle Park.