We’re suffering from an incoherent institutional set-up in the senate. You can have a system in which a defeated minority still gets a share of governing authority and participates constructively in the victorious majority’s governing agenda, shaping policy around the margins in ways more to their liking. Or you can have a system in which a defeated minority rejects the majority’s governing agenda out of hand, seeks opening for attack, and hopes that failure on the part of the majority will bring them to power. But right now we have both simultaneously. It’s a system in which the minority benefits if the government fails, and the minority has the power to ensure failure. It’s insane, and it needs to be changed.
CAN I CALL ‘EM, OR WHAT? Back in September, noting a continuing pattern of White House incompetence, I predicted: “Expect this to play out in thumbsucker columns on whether America is ‘ungovernable.’”
And, right on cue, here’s Matthew Yglesias: “The smarter elements in Washington DC are starting to pick up on the fact that it’s not tactical errors on the part of the president that make it hard to get things done, it’s the fact that the country has become ungovernable.”
Funny, that dumb cowboy Bush seemed to get a lot done with fewer votes in Congress. . . .
Plus, from the comments: “There have been no major institutional changes in the United States government in recent history that have caused it to ‘become ungovernable.’ There just isn’t enough political support to enact various news laws and policies that you favor. Tough. If you hadn’t become seduced by the delusion that Obama is a ‘progressive’ and that last year’s election represented some kind of historic realignment in favor of ‘progressive’ policies you might have seen this coming.”
Moe Lane at Redstate:
The country is indeed ungovernable.
My observation the other day that the country has become ungovernable has been treated with general scorn by the right-wing blogosphere. Glenn Reynolds, for example, had the simple quip “Funny, that dumb cowboy Bush seemed to get a lot done with fewer votes in Congress.”
Well, okay, but did he get a lot done?
Maybe “ungovernable” was not a good word for this, but I meant to convey the fact that the political system seems incapable of addressing large-scale objective problems. For example, there’s the long-term fiscal deficit. For another example, there’s anthropogenic climate change. For another example, our tax code is a very inefficient means of raising revenue. For a final one, our health care system involves a massive level of waste. These are real problems, not just ideological bugaboos. And I don’t think anything from the Bush administration experience should give us confidence that they’re solvable. Mostly Bush got “a lot done” by dodging those problems. When he did edge toward tackling them—his tax reform commission, for example—he got nowhere.
Perhaps the clearest way of making the point is simply the observation that George W Bush’s administration had a horrible record. Remember how by the time he left office his political party was completely discredited? Remember how conservatives were distancing themselves from the Bush legacy? If that’s what success looks like in modern American government, then we’re really doomed.
David Weigel at Washington Indepedent:
Matthew Yglesias, making another version of his argument that the multiple veto points in the legislative branch overly empower the minority and make America “ungovernable,” drew a quip from Glenn “Instapundit” Reynolds: “Funny, that dumb cowboy Bush seemed to get a lot done with fewer votes in Congress.” Yglesias clarifies: “I meant to convey the fact that the political system seems incapable of addressing large-scale objective problems.”
I think if Reynolds were to revisit his quip, he’d have to agree with Yglesias. What, after all, did Bush “get done” on domestic policy? As a libertarian like Reynolds knows, his biggest policy achievements made the government bigger, kicking costs down the road for someone else to pay. In 2001 he made an alliance with liberals and got the No Child Left Behind Act passed. In 2003 he made an alliance with liberals and got Medicare Part D passed. When Bush put his weight behind the sort of reforms that Reynolds likes, and that his base wanted — Social Security reform, for example — it died in Congress.
The big exception to all of this, of course, was tax policy. Bush got enormous supply-side tax cuts through Congress. But as Reynolds must know, those tax cuts didn’t need 60 votes to get through the Senate; they went through the budget process and needed 51 votes. I don’t think anyone would make the argument that tax cuts should have to pass a supermajority threshold. I know very few conservatives who are glad that Democratic filibusters, when the party was at an ebb of 45 Senate seats, could kill entitlement reform. But in our current system, cost-shifting policy like that is easy to pass and large-scale policies are tough to pass — note that “deficit hawks” like Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) are not proposing actual entitlement reforms, but toothless “commissions” to look at those reforms.
Funny, but I don’t recall Yglesias demanding those changes while Democrats were in the minority in the Senate. Tom Daschle was no less obstructionist, and Democrats managed to kneecap George Bush on judicial appointments without writing cris des coeurs over ungovernable America. In fact, Democrats openly bragged about using the Senate’s ancient methods of corralling the majority, even on the novel issue of judicial appointments where such procedures had rarely been used. And yet George Bush and the Republicans still managed to govern, and that was just a couple of years ago.
Funny, but I don’t recall Yglesias demanding those changes while Democrats were in the minority in the Senate.
There’s a similar note below about liberal hypocrisy. For whatever’s it’s worth, it should be noted that Matt is actually on the record as opposing the filibuster back in 2005. I’m not totally convinced because I haven’t thought much about what a filibuster-less world would look like. Still, at least in Matt’s case, killing the filibuster isn’t a new argument born out of the current congressional make-up.
Washington is abuzz with talk that the Senate Republicans will deploy the so-called “nuclear option” — in essence, violating the rules of the Senate to eliminate the possibility of mounting a filibuster against a presidential nominee — in order to obtain the confirmation of a handful of President George W. Bush’s appointments to the federal judiciary. Senate Democrats, naturally enough, are plotting a second strike: Through various manipulations of the Senate rules, they will bring the entire legislative process to a grinding halt. And rightly so. There’s no particular reason why filibusters should be banned just for nomination votes, and there’s certainly no justification for doing so in a way that violates the Senate’s rules. The politics of the fight that would ensue are uncertain but probably winnable for the Democrats. The substantive outcome — no passage of any bills of any sort — is the best liberals can hope for, given the current correlation of political forces inside the Beltway.
There is, however, a better way. Democrats should counter loose talk of going nuclear with a proposal of their own: The Senate as a whole could vote, through proper procedures, to end filibusters on votes of all kind, allowing passage of any bill (or nominee) that can secure a majority vote. Republicans may reject the offer, of course. But if they do so, that will only strengthen the Democrats’ hand politically in combating the nuclear option — by demonstrating a fair-minded commitment to principle over short-term partisan advantage.
Alternatively, the GOP might agree. In the short term, this would produce bad results: confirmation for some bad judges. In the long run, however, eliminating the filibuster will be good for liberals, and Republicans will rue the day they decided to sacrifice a major prop of conservatism in order to put a handful of under-qualified nominees on the bench.
At any given moment, the filibuster rule helps the minority party. Right now, that’s Democrats. But taking the long view, the filibuster is bad for Democrats. Ideally, you’d want to get rid of it at just the ideal moment. But, realistically, that can’t be done; only minority-party acquiescence will let it happen. Now’s a good time for Democrats to show some rare appreciation for the importance of long-term thinking and let the right shoot itself in the foot — rather than giving them yet another tool with which to rile up their base.
Matt Y now:
Meanwhile, I have the reverse hypocrisy accusation. All those conservatives who were upset about minority obstruction when Bush was president know there will be a moment of conservative political power again in the future, right? Don’t they think that if conservatives win an election based on conservative ideas they should get a fair chance to put those ideas in place? I won’t be thrilled to see it happen, but I’m glad to accept it as part of a fair trade and have been for years.
The history here is well known to everyone interested in politics but worth summarizing. For most of the first 190 years of the country’s operation, U.S. Senators would, in unusual circumstances, try to delay a vote on measures they opposed by “filibustering” — talking without limit or using other stalling techniques. For most of those years, the Senate could cut off the filibuster and force a vote by imposing “cloture,” which took a two-thirds majority of those voting (at most 67 of 100 Senators). In 1975, the Senate adopted a rules change to allow cloture with 60 votes, and those are the rules that still prevail.
The significant thing about filibusters through most of U.S. history is that they hardly ever happened. But since roughly the early Clinton years, the threat of filibuster has gone from exception to routine, for legislation and appointments alike, with the result that doing practically anything takes not 51 but 60 votes. So taken for granted is the change that the nation’s leading paper can offhandedly say that 60 votes are “needed to pass their bill.” In practice that’s correct, but the aberrational nature of this change should not be overlooked. (The Washington Post’s comparable story is more precise: “A bloc of 60 votes is the exact number required to choke off the filibuster, the Senate minority’s primary source of power, and the GOP‘s best hope of defeating the bill.”)
Again, this is a very well-explored issue in the academic literature and much of the blog world. For blog and magazine discussions, see here, here, here, here, and here. An authoritative academic treatment came from David Mayhew, of Yale, in his 2002 James Madison lecture for the American Political Science Association. It is available here in PDF and very much worth reading. Sample passage:
“That topic is supermajority rule in the U.S. Senate– that is, the need to win more than a simple majority of senators to pass laws. Great checker and balancer though Madison was, this feature of American institutional life would probably have surprised him and might have distressed him….
“Automatic failure for bills not reaching the 60 mark. That is the current Senate practice, and in my view it has aroused surprisingly little interest or concern among the public or even in political science. It is treated as matter- of-fact. One might ask: What ever happened to the value of majority rule?
Everything I have mentioned here is familiar, including the fact that this newly-invented “check” was not part of the original check-and-balance constitutional design. But somehow it isn’t familiar, in the sense of being part of general understanding and mainstream coverage of issues like the health reform bill. Talk shows analyze exactly how the Administration can get to 60 votes; they don’t discuss where the 60-vote practice came from and what it has done to public life. I have a gigantic article coming out soon in the Atlantic — long even by our standards! but interesting! — which concerns America’s ability to address big public problems, compared in particular with China’s. The increasing dysfunction of public institutions, notably the Senate, is a big part of this story.
Paul Krugman in NYT:
Back in the mid-1990s two senators — Tom Harkin and, believe it or not, Joe Lieberman — introduced a bill to reform Senate procedures. (Management wants me to make it clear that in my last column I wasn’t endorsing inappropriate threats against Mr. Lieberman.) Sixty votes would still be needed to end a filibuster at the beginning of debate, but if that vote failed, another vote could be held a couple of days later requiring only 57 senators, then another, and eventually a simple majority could end debate. Mr. Harkin says that he’s considering reintroducing that proposal, and he should.
But if such legislation is itself blocked by a filibuster — which it almost surely would be — reformers should turn to other options. Remember, the Constitution sets up the Senate as a body with majority — not supermajority — rule. So the rule of 60 can be changed. A Congressional Research Service report from 2005, when a Republican majority was threatening to abolish the filibuster so it could push through Bush judicial nominees, suggests several ways this could happen — for example, through a majority vote changing Senate rules on the first day of a new session.
Nobody should meddle lightly with long-established parliamentary procedure. But our current situation is unprecedented: America is caught between severe problems that must be addressed and a minority party determined to block action on every front. Doing nothing is not an option — not unless you want the nation to sit motionless, with an effectively paralyzed government, waiting for financial, environmental and fiscal crises to strike.
This is a time of crisis in American politics: not a crisis created by danger or emergency but by the gradual decay of government institutions. Americans need a Senate that works. The President and the Democrats have an obligation to resolve this crisis, not only for themselves, but for the benefit of the later administrations of both parties.
A government that can do nothing, and is perpetually held hostage to selfish men and women, will lose legitimacy and the confidence of the public; it will weaken and decay, and, sooner or later, find itself unable to respond to crises when they occur. Then the public will demand emergency measures from the executive, acting alone without the consent of Congress, further weakening republican government. A desperate or unscrupulous president will be only too happy to comply. Either we make Congress capable and responsive, or we will eventually lose the republic.
So what would it take to get people to care? One answer: a high-profile supporter. If Sarah Palin suddenly tweeted that the filibuster is a threat to democracy, for example, everyone would start talking about it. But who else is a plausible candidate for this? The president, of course, but he’s not going to. Anyone else?
Another answer: a popular, high-profile issue that gets blocked repeatedly by a 40-vote minority. Unfortunately, genuinely popular, high-profile issues generally don’t get filibustered. That’s why Supreme Court vacancies are filled pretty quickly but appellate court vacancies aren’t. So it’s not clear what issue would fit the bill here.
And a third answer: some kind of fabulously effective grass roots campaign. That seems pretty unlikely to me, though. Any other thoughts?
Pejman Yousefzadeh at The New Ledger:
But the big step by extremists will be an attempt to eliminate the filibuster, so that the courts can be packed with judges less committed to upholding the law than Mr. Greer.
–Paul Krugman, back in 2005, decrying the “religious right’s” supposed motivation to eliminate the filibuster in the Senate, so that Republican-appointed judges can strike down “conscience” or “refusal” legislation that may “allow doctors and other health providers to deny virtually any procedure to any patient.”
. . . we need to take on the way the Senate works. The filibuster, and the need for 60 votes to end debate, aren’t in the Constitution. They’re a Senate tradition, and that same tradition said that the threat of filibusters should be used sparingly. Well, Republicans have already trashed the second part of the tradition: look at a list of cloture motions over time, and you’ll see that since the G.O.P. lost control of Congress it has pursued obstructionism on a literally unprecedented scale. So it’s time to revise the rules.
–Paul Krugman, today. Of course, he wasn’t as exercised when Senate Democrats “trashed the second part of the tradition” while in opposition to filibuster appellate court nominees from the Bush Administration.
I have written this before, but it bears emphasis: It appears that Paul Krugman is unaware of this thing called “Google” or “archives” that allow people to go back, examine past and present statements from particular pundits, and determine whether the pundit in question has been hypocritical in the past.
UPDATE: More Fallows
UPDATE #2: Bruce Bartlett
UPDATE #3: Ezra Klein in WaPo
Byron York at Washington Examiner responds to Klein
Ed Kilgore at TNR responds to York
Jay Cost at Real Clear Politics on Klein
UPDATE #4: Will Wilkinson
UPDATE #5: Reihan Salam
UPDATE #6: More Douthat
UPDATE #7: Mark Schmitt and Byron York on Bloggingheads
Thomas Geoghegan at NYT