Gridlock as a Bilateral Monopoly Problem

I’m still tossing around ideas for the upcoming gridlock conference at Notre Dame.  One is that gridlock is the product of centralized power within Congress and the White House. Accordingly, the solution to gridlock lies in devolving power within the branches.

Here’s how I reach these conclusions.  One source of gridlock (or high transaction costs for legislation) is a plethora of veto points.  In other words, if a large number of institutions or factions must agree to get something done, accomplishment is unlikely. Another possibility, though, is that you could have a bilateral monopoly that leads to crippling transaction costs.  When there are only two parties to a negotiation, deadlock often ensues.

Bilateral monopoly is a good description of discussions between a President, who leads united Executive Branch, and one or both houses of Congress when the other party has a majority. This wasn’t always the case.  The political parties were once more heterogenous, and as a result party leaders were not the only important players.  Committee chairs or powerful moderates in Congress were often the crucial votes.  Members of the Cabinet also used to have more independence (either because they represented a rival faction of the President’s party or because that was just the practice). In recent decades, though, presidents have concentrated power in the West Wing and congressional leaders have pulled off something similar in the Senate and House.  Was this a positive change?

We cannot make the parties less homogenous (or, at least, that’s pretty hard), but we can alter the rules within the branches to weaken their respective leaderships. Doing so would open the door to more compromise and action, assuming that’s what we want.

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