Structuring Better Outcomes

Once I was part of an organization that was trying to design a group t-shirt. Our discussion was a mess. There were simply too many of us with too many ideas to reach a consensus. The more we talked and voted, the more frustrated people grew. Eventually someone realized that in addition to the split on various designs there was a growing divide between those who actually cared about the outcome and those who simply wanted the discussion to be over. The latter group was willing to vote for whatever would end the discussion, which only further frustrated those who cared about one design or another.

Finally someone came up with the right proposal: We would end the meeting of the whole. Those who cared could stay to choose a final design. Those who didn’t could leave. A few suggested that they didn’t care, except that they didn’t want X or Y outcome. They were told that they had to choose. If that outcome was sufficiently loathsome to them, they could stick around for the decision meeting. Otherwise, by choosing to leave they were abdicating their chance to participate in the meeting. Once everyone who decided they didn’t care left, those who did care were able to choose a design relatively quickly and easily.

Why do I bring this up here? Because it illustrates some dynamics of group decision making and an example of when it can be useful to hand authority to a smaller sub-set of the whole to make decisions. This, in turn, relates to Congress, the supercommittee, and a proposal made today by Senator Dick Durbin.


Durbin, the second ranked Democratic leader in the Senate, made a “pretty basic, and maybe radical proposal”: Any plan by any bipartisan group of 12 Senators (6 Dems and 6 Reps) that meets the $1.2 trillion deficit reduction goal of the supercommittee should be brought to a vote on the Senate floor.

What’s so radical about this? If adopted as a Senate rule (either de jure or de facto), it would create perhaps the first truly bi-partisan structure in our legislative branch. Whereas now the best route to bringing legislation to the floor in either chamber is to win over a majority of the majority party, this path would promote legislation that drew votes from across the aisle.

It would also be self-selecting. One of the problems with the supercommittee was that the membership was selected by the party leadership. Even if the leaders had chosen a representative cross-section of their membership, the resulting committee would have reflected the same ideological division and partisan interests that doomed earlier agreements. But under Durbin’s proposal, those who are more committed to a solution than to ideological rigidity could pursue their own agreements with like-minded individuals. In such a situation I think we’d see more creative solutions and much more willingness to compromise. Instead of ideological purity, this new structure would reward moderation.

What if, instead of wrangling over the filibuster (and you know I think that needs reforming), the Senate adopted this as a standing rule: any legislation put forward by six members caucusing with the majority and six members caucusing with the minority would proceed to the floor for a vote? That may take up further toward a functional federal legislature than any proposal I’ve yet heard.

4 Responses to Structuring Better Outcomes
  1. Solomon Kleinsmith
    November 25, 2011 | 2:45 pm

    Interesting idea, but what about independents? There are already two of them, and likely to be more in coming years.

    • Jason
      November 25, 2011 | 3:32 pm

      This is why I specified those who caucus with the majority and the minority. Right now both independents caucus with the Democrats, so for purposes of the rule they should count as members of the majority party.

      • Solomon Kleinsmith
        November 25, 2011 | 3:33 pm

        And if said independents decide not to caucus with either, then what?

        • Jason
          November 25, 2011 | 3:39 pm

          Well, in theory I’d say that they should count either way, so that any 12 member group made up of no more than 6 members from either party should count, but I don’t see the Senate giving that much power to independents in their midst. A rule favoring bipartisanship is already a stretch.

          Also, in our polarized political environment, I don’t foresee any senator not caucusing with either party. There are too many advantages to being part of the group.