I ain’t got time for this jibba jabba

Among many – many – other things, I wish political commentators would stop explaining away our near-constant legislative gridlock as some inevitable, quasi-mystical part of the democratic process.  For instance, here’s Peter Suderman (guest-posting for Andrew Sullivan) describing the “problem with politics”:

No, I don’t think this is a failure of leadership so much as a feature of democratic politics — and a reminder of how unpleasant and unsatisfying to nearly everyone the business of politics can be.

Democratic politics is a messy business. It’s disorganized and frantic and unpredictable and frustrating. Politics is a matter of shouting, and dissent, and deal-making, and strategy, and slippery rhetoric, and compromise. It is not a matter of deciding on the “right” policy and then making it so — even when your party controls the White House, the House, and the Senate.

[…]

It’s not that people enjoy this; in fact, it seems to turn a lot of people off. As Robert Putnam wrote, “Most men are not political animals. The world of public affairs is not their world. It is alien to them — possibly benevolent, more probably threatening, but nearly always alien.” But to a large extent, the spasms and outbursts and irritations that come with the political process are inevitable — no matter who’s in charge, no matter what the polls and pundits and politicians say.

I am completely on board with the observation that democratic politics is a messy, unpleasant affair.  But I’m not so sold on the implication Suderman’s post, which is that the current legislative gridlock is an unfortunate, but fundamentally acceptable, part of the democratic process.  It isn’t acceptable, and more importantly, it isn’t inevitable.  At its heart, the problem facing health care reform – and really, the problem facing any substantive change in domestic policy – is institutional.  Congress is simply ill-equipped to deal with large, complex problems, a rule that goes double for anything requiring substantive changes to the status quo.  That’s not to say that a few tweaks will suddenly turn Congress into a paragon of effective legislating – of course it won’t – but it is entirely within our power to make Congress a more effective vehicle for pursuing and implementing good public policy.  And we need to begin by abandoning this absurd notion that there is something noble about having a deeply unresponsive and counter-majoritarian legislative branch.

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46 thoughts on “I ain’t got time for this jibba jabba

  1. Yeah, I thought Suderman’s comment was really ignorant. In most other democracies, there aren’t dozens of easily-blocked subcabinet Senate-confirmable senior positions in the government. No other democracies I know of have anything like the filibuster. In most other democracies, a party gets elected and gets to implement their agenda, and then gets judged on its success or failure of that agenda. And then there’s the federalist system, rather than a unitary state. I’m no social scientist, but I would imagine that America has got to be one of the worst-run first world democracies, and while the reasons aren’t all institutional, many of them are.

    Plus, there’s my pet theory that countermajoritarian measures increase extremism because they allow politicians to make promises they can’t keep, then they have an excuse when it doesn’t work. It retards progress, it keeps the same issues around for decades, and it allows politicians to keep their bases permanently riled up without actually ever having to deliver, because they can say that they got robbed. It’s not a healthy system.

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  2. I’ve never been clear on the rationalization for taking the Senate seats away from the State legislatures that originally appointed them? It seems to me that the Senate would be a lot more resistant to corruption and crony-ism if a certain ammendment was repealed. Of course it’ll be an alpine day in hell when all the porkers in the senate ever agree to do away with their frat.

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  3. The problem with the Senate is not how Senators are elected but rather with how a Senate rule, cloture, is used.

    The following is found at the link provided.

    “In the past 40 years—and even more so in the past 10 years—the filibuster, or just the threat of one, has been used increasingly to stifle legislation. Norman Ornstein, the highly respected Congressional scholar, wrote last year that,

    ‘In the 1970s, the average number of cloture motions filed in a given month was less than two; it moved to around three a month in the 1990s. This Congress [the 110th], we are on track for two or more a week. The number of cloture motions filed in 1993, the first year of the Clinton presidency, was 20. It was 21 in 1995, the first year of the newly Republican Senate. As of the end of the first session of the 110th Congress, there were 60 cloture motions, nearing an all-time record.’”

    http://www.niemanwatchdog.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=background.view&backgroundid=381

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    • Jaybird, when I said “problem”(cloture) I was opposing it to North’s proposition that the problem was the method of selecting Senators.

      What’s good for Democrats is good for Republicans.

      Wanna dance?

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    • Hi Bob,
      Yes I’m aware of the filibuster, I haven’t made my own mind up one way or the other as to its relative merits but I have lived long enough to witness both republicans in the majority and then democrats in the majority decry its use which makes me suspect it may serve a useful function. But I’m not set on that.

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        • One biggie: Let’s say that there is a senator who cares more about playing to the National Stage than cares about his or her state. The state government could appoint someone who was looking out for (state) rather than #1.

          Additionally, we’ve all experienced the whole “so-and-so got elected because so-and-so is a brilliant campaigner” rather than “so-and-so would be good for (state)”. The Senate was supposed to be populated by people who knew the game and had the game down. If you want to vote for a rock star, that’s what the Congress is for. When it comes to the senate, however, that’s for politicians who aren’t pandering to the masses, but for politicians who are pandering to politicians. (Yes, I see that there are problems with this last part… but I’d prefer the tension between this dynamic to having this group of rock stars and that group of rock stars.)

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        • Well one basic benefit, to put it crassly, is that it would make Senators harder to buy. Currently they have to schmooze and fundraise just like any member of congressman and govern with an eye towards re-election. This makes them easy to influence. Comparatively buying a Senator under the old system essentially required that you buy the entire ruling party in a state legislature. A significantly more diffuse bunch of politicians. Additionally, in so far as the Senator depended on the legislature for his job he would govern with an eye towards keeping the legislators who elected him happy with him and in power. Since state legislators are “closer to the ground” politically speaking this would make the senator more responsive to the needs of the state that appointed him rather than his needs for election. Also, scmoozing with state politicians would command somewhat less of his time and a lot less money than running a modern campaign would.

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          • The passage of the 17th Amendment, or more accurately, the direct election of Senators was a long fought battle. I’m not going to place a lot of emphasis on this but Andrew Jackson called for direct election of the Senate during his presidency. State legislatures often had difficulty in agreeing on a Senator, or competing candidates appeared in DC leaving it up to the Senate to determine who would be seated. Both impediments often resulted in a state being unrepresented for months at a time. The pre 17th Amendment situation was not immune from corruption, see link.

            Now, with regard to the argument that Senators need to be close to their electorate. I think that direct election encourages this much more that the original method where Senators had to remain in the good graces of a relatively few state “king-pins.”

            http://modern-us-history.suite101.com/article.cfm/progressive_era_reforms_the_17th_amendment

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            • Possibly Bob, I am not passionatly on one side or the other but it seems to me that modern transportation, media and communication would eliminate most of the problems that were associated with the old system like competing senators showing up for their seat. And surely you would agree that a senator who has to bankroll an election and campaign for re-election is going to be a lot easier to influence than one who’s being appointed by his state’s legislature.

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      • Actually there are glaring problems with both parts. But since you admit the weakness of the “additionaly” part let me address the “one biggie” part.

        Are you asserting that citizens, by direct vote, are incapable of recognizing and removing a charlatan? Why would citizens be capable of recognizing capable state legislators capable of electing capable Senators but be incapable of detecting charlatans in a direct vote?

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        • “Are you asserting that citizens, by direct vote, are incapable of recognizing and removing a charlatan?”

          I’m saying that citizens, by direct vote, are more able to do this on a congressional level while, on a senatorial level, there’s much more of a “our sonovabitch” dynamic going on. We have to keep our sonovabitch because West Virginia is going to keep theirs and we can’t have an our sonovabitch gap.

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          • And I did the numbers on this a bit back, if we had the same amount of representation as in 1911 (when they froze the number of congressmen to 435), we’d have more than 1300 congressmen today. That would get rid of most of the rock star problem. Hey, if you wanted to run for stuff, you could. You’d have to go door to door and kiss babies but it would be possible to run for something without needing a corporation behind you. There would still be gerrymandering but it’d be a lot tougher to orchestrate. And, I reckon, you (and I) would be better represented.

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            • But thawing the freeze, 435, in the House, allowing for “over 1300” Representatives, would do nothing to lessen any real or perceived problem in the Senate. Such a fractious House could easily increase the rock star power of Senators that is set by the Constitution at two for each state.

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              • Well, doing both at the same time would return both “houses” to their original dynamics.

                The House would be the House of Commons.
                The Senate would be the House of Lords.

                The Representatives would be chosen by the rabble.
                The Senators would be chosen by the elite.

                As it is now, Congressmen are senators who get elected every 2 years and Senators are congressmen who get elected every 6.

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      • Additionally, as exemplified by the health care debate, Senators and Representatives seem very willing to vote the positions of their states or districts. But since we are discussing the Senate let me just say Senators seem willing to vote the views of their states. Hence, Snowe is often mentioned as being willing to vote with the Dems because Maine leans left.

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    • I suppose I terminated that communique a bit prematurely…

      Our structure of government is in fact designed “to produce repose, or inaction,” said Montesquieu. Gridlock is simply a sign that the filtration system of our government is working: only those laws which are brutally necessary should be able to eek through the system. Whatever your estimation of the health care situation, it can hardly be said that it threatens the domestic tranquility or the survival of the republic.

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    • Right, but you are temperamentally conservative. Which is fine, but we shouldn’t default to conservative temperament in a way that disadvantages liberals. What I disagree with about Peter’s analysis, and it’s one I see all the time, is that it pretends to be non-ideological when in fact it privileges conservative politics.

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      • It really depends on the nature of the change, though, doesn’t it? In 1994 the GOP ran on a pretty aggressive agenda. The Filibuster makes eliminating any cabinet departments impossible. Social Security Reform as well. Vouchers had to be significantly watered down to gain Democratic approval. Rather than privileging conservative politics, it privileges the status quo, which conservatives are not particularly more pleased with than liberals.

        I get your basic point… but I think we’ve passed the point where radical change is a whole lot more the preference of liberals than conservatives.

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  4. We’re past slow to react and difficult to pass big legislation. I realize many of libertarian’s and some conservative’s appear to see gridlock and inability to do anything as a feature not a bug. But that does leave us with a bit of pickle if something needs to be done.

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  5. sowwy, Jamelle….E.D. is right.
    This isn’t a bug its a feature.
    Sadly, the Framers excellent work is kinda broken right now though.
    Those old genius white guys envisioned egalitarian representation for both the haves and the have nots, but alas, our last president, George Gog/Magog Bush, Mr. Torture/Econopalypse himself screwed the representation bias.
    You see, Jamelle, cher, the right has been experiencing a gradual cultural and demographic disenfranchisement for the last 20 years or so….alla sudden they got brutally and instantly politically disenfranchised in 2008. 365 to 173 actually.
    So the right has no cultural voice and also no political voice.
    Only talkradio and talktv, and the demographics the GOP needs to reach to become relevent don’t listen to either of those, like young people, hispanics, and teh college-educated.
    Thus we see the emergence of a new demographic…..the Teabagger Demographic. Basically people you could meet at a Klan rally with a leavening of Rage-grampaw and a soupcon of sub-sapient gun-nuts.
    Old, white, and crazypants.

    The only voice they have left is screams.

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  6. I would only view the Senate’s reticence as a feature if it were driven by honest concern for citizens. Instead it is driven by party politics and corporate interests. And the subcommittee structure just makes it worse, by putting huge bills in the hands of one or two people who can be bought off by campaign contributions or influenced by fabricated constituent anger. So while the ultimate effect is conservative behavior in passing bills, the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater – changes that are needed, and wanted, get demogogued and radicalized just as much as changes that are still half-baked ideas. It’s worth changing the Senate procedural rules just for that purpose.

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    • dude…its human nature to do that.
      The framers understood human nature very well and built as good as they could. GW screwed us…well….911 did I guess. We elected GW, but we needed a different president on 9/12. He was so not up to task..a horrorshow basically….that the pendulumn swung wide, no damping effect.
      Ideally the houses of congress are more evenly divided so everyone gets a smidge of representation, and congress critters are forced to work together…..
      And I pity the GOP….the only power they have in congress is the power of justsayno.
      And the issue is healthcare reform….which will kill the GOP, like all the pundits said last year.
      They have to stop it…but I don’t think they can.
      ;)

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  7. I think that the best argument against the filibuster and other stalling tactics is that it makes it easier for congresspeople to stuff bills with unrelated goodies (and baddies) in order to get passed. Even aside from pork, it helps stuff bills with unrelated items that have little to do with the intended law.

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