Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sand in the Gears

E.J. Dionne makes an important point about the Senate and the politics of delay.

[I]t's ... time to start paying attention to how Republicans, with Machiavellian brilliance, have hit upon what might be called the Beltway-at-Rush-Hour Strategy, aimed at snarling legislative traffic to a standstill so Democrats have no hope of reaching the next exit.

We know what happens when drivers just sit there when they're supposed to be moving. They get grumpy, irascible and start turning on each other, which is exactly what Democrats are doing now.
Republicans are using the filibuster to stall action even on bills that most of them support. Remember: The rule is to keep Democrats from ever reaching the exit.

As of last Monday, the Senate majority had filed 58 cloture motions requiring 32 recorded votes. One of the more outrageous cases involved an extension in unemployment benefits, a no-brainer in light of the dismal economy. The bill ultimately cleared the Senate earlier this month by 98-0--yes, that is a zero.

The vote came only after the Republicans launched three filibusters against the bill and also tried to lard it with unrelated amendments, delaying passage by nearly a month. And you wonder why it's so hard to pass health care?

The change in usage of the filibuster is the tactical innovation, if that's the word. But the larger point might be that fundamentally we now have a system increasingly out of sync with the times: the Senate famously is supposed to take a long time to pass big legislation, and it’s not supposed to be easy. But as the standard for even routine stuff, like judicial nominations, gets ever-closer to that for major legislation, the effect is that nothing happens until opponents take their pound of flesh. Meanwhile, the mean attention span of Americans gets shorter and shorter: if it doesn’t happen quickly, goes the assumption, it probably doesn’t deserve to happen at all. Supporters lose enthusiasm, in frustration with both the slow pace and the myriad compromises necessary for any forward progress, while opponents come to smell blood. And everybody disengages somewhat, leaving the field to those with the most direct interests.

Dionne’s fear seems to be that the Republicans will gain politically from a strategy that essentially degrades the capacity of government. Again, it’s more understandable on something big like healthcare, where objections can be presumed to be at least somewhat in earnest, than extending UI benefits or filling judicial vacancies. But it constrains the possible: if health care bills had passed both Houses by the August break, as Obama originally called for, Congress likely now would be focused on the problem of jobs, which is the main thrust of Republican attacks right now. But dropping health care in the middle, or even further slowing down the pace, would constitute a serious political loss for the president, and for the Democrats. So dragging that out strengthens the criticism that the majority is neglecting the problem of jobs, while hiding the Republicans' role in clogging the legislative highway.

This tactic of all-purpose delay is a better fit for the Republicans, whose current political identity is largely based on hind-brain fear and loathing of government, than it would be for the Democrats if and when power shifts back. Still, pressure from their activist base probably would impel the Democrats to ape the tactic and dig in on small stuff as well as large. The result would be that less and less public business will get done. One eventual outcome from this could be ever-larger swings of power: imagine as the next president somebody further on the right than Obama is to the left, followed by someone still further back to the left, and so forth.

As the problems get bigger and consensus in dealing with them becomes more and more vital, the risk is that "the middle"--by which I don't really mean mushy centrists or preening egomaniacs of the type now at center stage in the healthcare debate, but anybody willing to bargain in good faith on issues of the public business--could collapse entirely. That eventuality, coupled with a governance structure that intentionally thwarts small majorities, would mark a point of no return: Any system that proves structurally unable to grapple with a society's fundamental problems is living on borrowed time.

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