Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Weird Science: Laboratories of Democracy

State governments in the USA have often been referred to as "laboratories of democracy." Places where ideas in governance and policy can be tried out. Most Americans assume that state governments are pretty much all alike. Some quirky differences are more widely known. (E.g.: Nebraska has a unicameral legislature; Maine and Nebraska apportion electoral vote by congressional districts, not winner-take-all; Texas has separate supreme courts for civil and criminal matters; Louisiana has runoff elections sometimes). Other things are not well known.

For example: the veto power. I have known for a while that many states (43, it turns out) give the governor "line-item" veto power, the ability to accept or reject portions of a bill or (more normally) "line items" of spending from a budget. Six states have an "amendatory" veto, that allows the government to veto a bill, rewrite it, and send it back for approval in his format. In Illinois, a vetoed bill requires 3/5 to override, but the "amended" veto bill can be enacted with a simple vote of the legislature. This is a powerful bargaining tool.

I was moved to post this by something I learned about Wisconsin's veto power. There, the veto power can be used to strike individual words and mess with grammar to create new language.
They have what some call a "Frankenstein" veto. Apparently, in 2005, Democrat Jim Doyle used the power to strike out 752 words from a budget bill to produce, instead, a single 20-word sentence that diverted $427 million from transportation to education. Imagine the legislative drafting that must go into creating a bill that can't be altered in this way, if you can even do it!

FYI, it turns out that it used to be worse in Wisconsin. Until 1990, the governor had the power to delete individual alphabetic letters and numerical characters in a bill to change the intent of the legislation! That practice was dubbed the “Vanna White Veto" during the 1990 campaign that succeeded in abolishing it.

Bottom line: Institutional design requires a lot of sophistication. Democratic government is about WAY more than just counting votes. In this election season, where we're learning about superdelegates (and will soon be learning about "bonus" delegates - extra delegates awarded by the DNC to states that have agreed to delay their voting in primaries/caucuses until later in 2008, thus giving, for example, 30% extra delegates to North Carolina than the normal allocation would permit) and other arcane rules, this is a good time to think about American government in general. Isn't it strange how, over the course of two centuries or more, it calcifies and produces strange growths?


Raised By Republicans said...

Great post!

Yes, institutions are very important and have enormous policy implications.

It is interesting that the Wisconsin Governors had used that veto so agressively. That's very unusual for the US. It's much more in line with the kind of executive vetos you see down in Latin America.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Well, cheese, bananas, maybe there's a connection...