Combating gridlock by tying Congress to the mast

In a dynamic new paper, Ulysses goes to Washington: Political myopia and policy commitment devices, Richard Reeves offers a means to overcome the gridlock strangling American politics and policymaking. He argues that a more expanded use of commitment devices can relax Congress’ grip on policy making in a variety of areas and delegate in a variety of ways that facilitate policy change and innovation. Drawing on the lesson of Ulysses being tied to the mast of his ship, Reeves argues that Congress can and should do the same.

The paper begins with a detailed discussion of how commitment devices work in politics, both in the US and around the world. Reeves goes on to categorize different types of commitment devices based on “the degree of implied commitment.” They are institutions, goals, and advice. Each functions differently, but each also pushes elected officials into committing—or being forced to consider committing—to policy action, rather than falling into gridlock or subjecting the citizenry to myopia.

The commitment device categorization is an interesting advance. Often in politics, commitment devices are viewed in more formal institutional terms, such as the creation of the Federal Reserve, but Reeves argues that informal efforts such as campaign promises, policy goals, or the commissioning of expert recommendations all function as commitment devices. They set public expectations about outcomes that elected officials will incur some cost if deviation occurs. The costs of deviation, in the face of a commitment device, becomes a central element of the device itself, in many ways determining how credible and effective it will be.

Beyond the theoretical contributions of this paper—which are many—Reeves goes on to engage the politics of commitment devices and ultimately recommend some policy areas that could greatly benefit from the adoption of commitment devices.  

On politics he notes that the design and implementation of such commitment devices are often quite difficult. This difficulty emerges in large part because it narrows or removes the power that elected officials hold over the policy process or greatly reduces their choice over outcomes. The result is that more effective commitment devices, such as BRACs in the US, are very difficult to put into place because of electorally-minded, myopic legislators.

Despite that political friction, there are numerous policy areas that both need reform and would benefit from commitment devices. Reeves focuses on five policies/commitment devices including a national infrastructure bank, an office of opportunity, a federal nuclear waste corporation, a federal minimum wage advisory board, and a carbon tax. Each of these engage controversial, highly politicized areas of public policy, which creates an odd tension. The very controversy that drives the need for commitment devices to improve policy outcomes lowers the likelihood of implementing a commitment device.

The result is that gridlock or policy myopia continues because elected officials fear policy solutions more than they fear a broken or dysfunctional system. Despite a dreary outlook on the likelihood of the US government broadly embracing commitment devices to resolve some of its most complex policy problems, Reeves paper is a masterful assessment of the details of how these devices work, the benefits of these tools, and the politics that surround them.