Excessive veto power is holding back progress in the United States

This essay was originally sent out via CGO’s email newsletter.

Just before the pandemic, 77-year-old Patrick Quinlan got approval to build 10 new units of housing on a 17,400-square-foot lot in San Francisco. Getting permission to build new housing isn’t normally a news story, but Quinlan’s became one because he has been working on the project most of his adult life. Those ten units took over 40 years to get approval.

Late into 2019, Quinlan finally won support from many neighbors, including Kathleen Campbell, who lives in the area and had opposed the development since 1997. Mission Local, a SF based publication, covered the story and featured Campbell who said that, “The current proposal is the best option we’ve seen in over 22 years.”   

Quinlan’s story is an egregious example of a common tendency in our political system. Excessive veto power halts progress. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama calls this vetocracy, a system characterized by excessive vetoes. California’s housing crisis is sadly the best example. 

Cynics will often retort that California is uniquely mountainous and prone to earthquakes, meaning there will always be delays. But Japan has similar terrain and Tokyo builds. In 2018, Tokyo was home to 13.5 million people and built 145,000 new residences. California, a state with 39 million people in 2018 put up 58,800 homes. If California were to build at the same rate, they would have put up over 418,000 new homes. There are over 360,000 missing homes.

A big reason for the limited housing is the ease with which people can stop development. San Francisco resident Ryan Delk noted, there are “six people who oppose nearly every new development in [San Francisco], successfully using various loopholes and review processes to delay them by months or years. [Six] people holding back an entire city.”

Vetocracy isn’t limited to housing development. As the San Francisco Chronicle reported, when the city tried to shut down some streets during the depths of COVID, they were met with appeals. Each of the appeals cost about 100 hours of work, according to the Director of Transportation Jeffrey Tumlin. The appeals were a bit of a joke since they were directed to the city’s Board of Supervisors, which serves as the judge and jury in these cases. The appeals cost a combined $10,000 in city officials’ and attorneys’ time, “more time and money than it took to create the emergency programs in the first place,” Tumlin went on. 

For many, California is a world away. Still, a good portion of the rise in housing costs and home prices can be accounted for by these forces. Excessive veto power has slowed infrastructure building as well. Real spending per mile on interstate construction increased more than 3 times from the 1960s to the 1980s. But this rise wasn’t due to geographic cost determinants, or increases in labour or materials. It came from the rise of “citizen voice” in government decision-making. 

One lesson is painfully obvious from COVID. Governments need to go faster. Voice is important to a healthy democracy, but excessive vetoes mean that work slows. What’s needed is a reversal of this trend, which would mean more housing, clean energy, and better transportation infrastructure.

First published Nov 2, 2021