King’s pawn opening

February 13, 2012

Today, as required under law, the President submitted his FY2013 budget to Congress.

Imagine that I sent an email to you and six of our friends suggesting that we plan a picnic for next weekend:

Hey all, we were talking about getting together this weekend. It looks like the weather is going to be great, anyone want to have a picnic? I already talked to Rachel and Jack about it, they thought it was a great idea. We could do it at Burke Lake Park Saturday around 12:30? There’s a good spot on the south side down by the water that’s nice and shady. It has a couple of picnic tables, but I could also bring my two extra-large quilts. What would people want to eat? I was thinking we bring hot dogs and hamburgers to grill over their charcoal pits, potato salad, watermelon, and chips. Maybe Sarahjane could make those blond brownies, too? And someone should grab some beer and soda. The water will probably be warm enough to swim, so we could bring bathing suits. They also have that frisbee golf there, and someone could bring a football.

Now, the chances are that this is not exactly how the picnic will go. People might suggest other food they want to bring, different recreational activities that we might need equipment for, or even a completely different time or location. Sarah might offer to make a different dessert; Jack might suggest we bring our baseball gloves; Becky might throw in that she’d rather have fruit salad than watermelon; Tom might declare that 1pm works better for him; Anna might say she also wants pretzels and veggieburgers; Megan might veto the quilts in favor of sand chairs, and Chris might suggest the clearing on the east side of the lake because it has both shade and sun. And, of course, the whole thing could fall apart if people have other things they need to do.

What is highly unlikely, however, is anyone sending back the following email three hours later, after 2 others have already agreed to the picnic:

That could be fun, Matt, but I was thinking this: we go to Manassas mid-afternoon Sunday. Have an afternoon lunch at Mickey’s Diner, we haven’t been there in forever. It’s going to be the perfect wind to fly kites at Bull Run battlefield park. There’s a great sunset there in the summer, and the hiking trails are awesome. And the Manassas gun range is right by there, so we could bring our rifles and go skeet-shooting afterwards. I’ll also throw my volleyball net in my trunk.

This is, in a nutshell, why it’s an advantage to be the first-mover in legislative politics.

1) You get a head-start on popular persuasion. This is because of the information asymmetry. You might have spent 3 hours crafting your picnic idea and formulating the perfect email. You might have even called Rachel and Jack to get them on-board before presenting it to the group. And people who love the idea are going to respond really quick. Anyone who disagrees fundamentally with the idea of the picnic has probably less than 20 minutes to counter with an alternative idea, since as soon as one person responds affirmatively, the wholesale substitution is probably no longer viable within the full group. And so it goes with legislation. Think of the committee chair who spent weeks crafting a chairman’s mark, facing off against committee opposition that only got a copy of the proposed legislation minutes before the markup. Or the army of  people that the administration can deploy today on the press while Members of Congress sit around trying to figure out exactly what is even in the budget proposal.

2) Something beats nothing, every time. This follows directly from the head start on popular persuasion. Our picnic proposal not only offers specifics as to time, place, and manner, but it also quickly locks in the big-picture agenda. Even if the majority would prefer to do something else, as soon as a few people back the picnic and there is no immediate alternative, the picnic has won at the conceptual level. That’s why the kite-flying / gun range alternative seems so absurd and impolite — it might be more popular ex-ante in a pair-wise comparison, but once people have signed onto the picnic in concept, they’re not changing their minds. Too many plans may already be based on it, and too many resources may already have been expended. So to in legislative politics; when the majority in Congress chooses among possible legislative paths on a big issue, they are unlikely to accept a full substitute from their own side down the road, even if it would have won a pair-wise vote at the outset.

3) You force people to amend rather than substitute. Following from the lack of full substitutes comes the tendency for non first-movers to focus their attention on amending little details. This is when you know you have won, because it indicates that people have conceded the big-picture and are now out to maximize their utility under it. And so they each seek to change the detail that most concerns them. Here you have also won; not only have you laid down the big-picture, but even if everyone changes one detail, you’ve still decided almost a  majority of all the details. Now that’s disproportionate influence. This is as true in legislation as it is in picnic-crafting. There are so many details in every major bill that if you can afford to cut loose any two dozen of them, you’ll still end up with something that not only looks like what you wanted in spirit, but is, in fact, 80% of what you wanted. Especially because even when they do change things — like Tom moving the picnic by half an hour — they haven’t really altered your general vision.

4) You become a stronger veto player. For whatever reason, people offer undue-deference to first-movers. Maybe it’s a subconscious reward, because the first-mover is seen to have put in the most “work” or “leadership” on an issue; it could also be the result of a repeated-game logroll, in which people expect you to defer to them when they are the first-mover. Or it could just be not wanting to step on anyone’s toes or create a scene between friends. In any case, when you propose a picnic, people will be more than careful not to alter things unilaterally without your permission. Someone wants to play cornhole instead of frisbee golf? They’re going to run it by you to see if it’s ok. And this seems true independent of your institutional authority over the situation. With co-partisans, it may come down to not wanting to embarrass someone or mess up their grander plan. But in any case, it’s real. It will not just take a simple majority to alter your picnic plan once the basic terms are agreed to, it will take a supermajority.

I suspect that not a whole lot of people were thinking about any of this in Congress when the Budget Act was passed in 1921, which for the first time required the President to submit a unified executive branch budget, rather than the departments simply coming to Congress piecemeal and presenting budget requests. The institutional results for inter-branch relations was largely twofold, both beneficial to the President: it made him the first mover in the budget and appropriations process, handing him the authority to develop and submit the unified budget. And second, it gave him increased control over the executive branch, since it required the departments to now send their budget request up through the BoB (now OMB) for approval, meaning the White House would have stronger authority to request, manipulate, and reject agency budgeting and planning.

In any case, the role of the President in the legislative process was vastly expanded in 1921, and it was done by Congress. Appropriations are the only thing that Congress has to do each year, and in an attempt to bring rationality and clarity to the process, they effectively took their main function and voluntarily decided to share it with the President.  Does this make the Budget Act a mistake? Not by a longshot. The United States almost certainly needed a unified federal budget, and there is hardly another actor in the system who could have provided it. But it is a reminder that the best laid plans, even when they are executed successfully, are rarely without unintended consequences. For better or worse, the budget process in the United States is now, in part, heavily dependent on the President. And this is magnified by the fact that he now writes the picnic email.

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