It’s the default leadership skill – when everyone is sitting around arguing that something must be done, but almost everyone has an objection to this or that detail of the plan on the table, and refuses to agree to move forward unless that detail is removed for the plan, and people dig in their heels and refuse to let anything happen unless they get their way, as they do have their principles, the leader finally says tough, we’re going to do something about the problem, and this is it. That’s the job, as being reasonable and examining each objection and its implications can go on forever, and nothing gets done. You do that – consider all the objections – because you don’t want to do anything boneheaded, and most everyone has good ideas. But you don’t do that forever. You make a decision. That’s what you’re supposed to do.
It’s an Alpha Male thing perhaps – someone has to take charge, or at least take responsibility. One or more of those with their noble and principled objections will predict doom and gloom – this will be the end of everything and ruin us all. But that’s fine. If they’re right they can gloat and tell everyone they told you so – and then they can try to convince everyone they should be leader. And they can pout and whine as they wait to see how things work out, if that’s their thing. That’s usually a process of saying look what the big bully did to me, and might someday do to you – he’s evil and we must get rid of him. But that comes with the territory. Something needed to be done, and what happens is your problem, not anyone else’s. You know the drill. Whether something awful happens – or something good – or something in between – you’ll deal with it. You own it.
In politics this played out in the curious history of Medicare, which everyone is now scrambling to say they’ll protect, as so many depend on it to pretty much keep them alive, and those people vote. But there was Ronald Reagan’s impassioned speech to America – creating Medicare would be the end of America as we know it. It was socialism. The government should have nothing to do with healthcare – the government can’t ever do anything right and will kill us all, or turn us into lazy bums who think the world owes them something.
But Medicare, for all its problems, seems to have worked out just fine, and we’re all still here. It’s actually socialized medicine, a government healthcare program covering tens of millions of people, and now considered vital, and sacrosanct. And at the Tea Party events you hear people shout “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!” Yes, that is a bit confusing. But you see the problem. Ronald Reagan couldn’t have been wrong, so Medicare can’t possibly be a government program. And the government shouldn’t tinker with its current administration of that program it created and runs, or something. But something got done, in spite of Reagan’s noble and principled objections. And what happened? It turned out to be a good thing, generally, and a necessary thing for a big chunk of the population, worth defending at all costs. When people saw what it did they were fine with it. And fans of everything Reagan now wish that audio clip of his dire warnings didn’t exist. He couldn’t have said such things.
That’s what was behind William Kristol’s famous 1993 Project for the Republican Future strategy memo to Republicans. He explained why Hillary Clinton’s healthcare plan had to be defeated – if passed it would make people’s lives better, and they’d like what changed for them, and they’d credit the Democrats for that, and the Republicans would lose elections for a generation. So you cannot let the Democrats improve people’s lives. That’s political suicide. Kristol doesn’t mention Reagan’s impassioned end-of-everything comments on Medicare, but the lesson was clear. Let someone decide to go forward and what happens may not be dire. It might be popular, and you’ll have no opportunity to say told you so. You’ll have nothing.
And here we go again, as the Associated Press reports on Sunday, February 28:
The White House called for a “simple up-or-down” vote on health care legislation Sunday as Speaker Nancy Pelosi appealed to House Democrats to get behind President Barack Obama’s chief domestic priority even it if threatens their political careers.
In voicing support for a simple majority vote, White House health reform director Nancy-Ann DeParle signaled Obama’s intention to push the Democratic-crafted bill under Senate rules that would overcome GOP stalling tactics.
Republicans unanimously oppose the Democratic proposals. Without GOP support, Obama’s only chance of emerging with a policy and political victory is to bypass the bipartisanship he promoted during his televised seven-hour health care summit Thursday.
“We’re not talking about changing any rules here,” DeParle said. “All the president’s talking about is: Do we need to address this problem and does it make sense to have a simple, up-or-down vote on whether or not we want to fix these problems?”
That’s it. Let’s just vote on the damned thing and see what happens. All the objections have been raised, repeatedly, and discussed, in detail. Everyone had his or her say. The concessions and modifications have been made, again and again. It’s time to vote. And the item goes on to cite Eric Cantor in the House saying that if they Democrats do this – pass the legislation without the Republicans, as not one of them will vote for this – all Americans will see the Democrats are arrogant bullies and the Democrats will lose every election until the end of time. Mitch McConnell in the Senate is quoted as saying all Americans want the whole process to start over from scratch, so there can be a bipartisan bill that eliminates each and every provision that any Republican in either house objects to stripped for the bill – that’s only fair, and people know it. So we now enter the whining and pouting phase of the process.
But the Republicans may be able to stop the process, as getting to a simple up-or-down requires that the Senate agree to allow that vote to happen. There are the Senate’s procedural rules. If someone says let’s not vote just yet, it takes sixty votes to overrule that suggestion and tell that Senator to shut up and sit down, and have the actual vote. And the Democrats don’t have sixty votes – all they have is reconciliation, a process where you claim the legislation has to do with budget and expenditures and is not subject to the cloture rule, where the vote can be delayed forever. And the Republicans don’t like that much.
And ThinkProgress has the video clip – Senator Lamar Alexander, the Republican from Tennessee, on ABC’s This Week, there to discuss the bipartisan health care reform summit. During the summit, as you would expect, Alexander urged the President and Congressional Democrats to renounce the idea of using budget reconciliation to pass health care reform. And on This Week, Alexander took this an odd step further, saying that the use of reconciliation would be the end of the Senate:
The reconciliation procedure is a little-used legislative procedure – 19 times, it’s been used. It’s for the purpose of taxing, spending, and reducing deficits. But the difference here is that there’s never been anything of this size and magnitude and complexity run through the Senate in this way. There are a lot of technical problems with it, which we could discuss. It would turn the Senate, it would really be the end of the Senate as a protector of minority rights, the place where you have to get consensus, instead of just a partisan majority.
Well, that’s something new, the Senate as a protector of minority rights. And Pat Garofalo comments:
If using reconciliation were really “the end of the Senate,” the Senate would have died a long time ago, and Lamar Alexander would have been complicit in its death.
Reconciliation has been used to pass at least 19 bills, including major pieces of health care reform legislation like the Children’s Health Insurance Program and the Medicare Advantage Program. Fourteen of the times reconciliation was employed it was used to advance Republican interests.
Garofalo has links for all that, if you wish to drill down, but Garofalo point to an item showing Alexander himself has personally voted for reconciliation at least four times:
– 2003 Bush Tax Cuts: The Congressional Budget office, Bush’s tax cuts for the rich increased budget deficits by $60 billion in 2003 and by $340 billion by 2008. The bill had a cost of about a trillion dollars. [Alexander voted yes.]
– 2005 Deficit Reduction Act of 2005: The bill cut approximately $4.8 billion over five years and $26.1 billion over the next ten years from Medicaid spending. [Alexander voted yes.]
– 2005 Tax Increase Prevention and Reconciliation Act of 2005: The bill extended tax cuts on capital gains and dividends and the alternative minimum tax. [Alexander voted yes.]
– 2007 College Cost Reduction and Access Act: The bill forgave all remaining student loan debt after 10 years of public service. [Alexander voted yes]
And Garofalo adds this:
In the end, Alexander’s mere presence on television this morning seems to indicate that using reconciliation does not, in fact, end the Senate.
But Matthew Yglesias gets to Alexander’s core argument regarding “Minority Rights” and the US Senate:
As to the historical use of the budget reconciliation process this is hypocritical nonsense. But it’s also worth taking this “minority rights” business on.
As everyone knows, in a democracy you normally do things with a majority-rules or plurality-rules decision procedure. But as everyone also knows, part of building a sustainable liberal democratic polity is that you don’t just have “the tyranny of the majority.” A strong framework of individual rights is necessary. The idea is that you shouldn’t have the few subjected to oppression by the many.
And all that’s fine as far as it goes. But it has to be seen clearly that the US Senate’s countermajoritarian aspects are rarely if ever used to protect “minority rights” in any relevant sense of the word. The Senate fought a lonely battle on behalf of Jim Crow segregation, not against it. And I think you’d be hard-pressed to find an example of a vulnerable minority being subjected to majoritarian persecution by the House, the White House, and the Supreme Court being saved by the heroics of the filibuster.
Yes, this seems to be nonsense, as Andrew Sullivan notes in his weekly Times of London column:
I suspect the bill will pass – but I sure wouldn’t bet much money on it. If it fails, does this mean we could face such deadlock in the world’s largest democracy that we are threatened with what one British economics commentator has described as “a financial crisis so horrific that actions by the British or European governments would be swept away like beach huts in a tsunami?”
Sullivan suggests not:
People forget that the American political system is designed to stop anything getting done. Civil rights bills, even after Kennedy’s assassination, were filibustered for 37 days straight. Bill Clinton’s healthcare bill failed; Bush’s social security reform failed. The Senate, with its arcane procedures, is a brick wall against change. Just one senator can, in effect, stop everything. Rural states with barely anyone in them have two senators each, while the national capital, Washington DC, has none. The population represented by senators who favor health insurance reform dwarfs the population represented by senators who don’t. As Churchill once said – “Americans always do the right thing after they have exhausted every other alternative.” And that’s what the founders wanted. This isn’t a bug; it’s a feature.
Our system is designed to stop anything getting done? Could that be?
It seems so, and Sullivan isn’t all that unhappy with it, and quite happy that at least the new guy understands how the system actually works:
After the appalling imperial presidency of Bush, Obama is trying to restore constitutional balance and order. While Dick Cheney, the former vice-president, had contempt for the rule of law, Obama is a stickler for it. His seeming passivity is actually what used to be called constitutionalism, which is why I still see Obama as a One Nation Tory rather than a liberal radical. If he squeezes this bill through, no one will now believe he rammed it through. He tried. Just as, if he imposes sanctions on Iran, no one will be able to say he didn’t try all he could to bring Tehran around. And this strengthens his position in the long run, when not all of us will be dead.
But Sullivan is an old-fashioned Edmund Burke sort of conservative – not a war-and-empire neoconservative or a Palin-Beck end-all-government Tea Party sort. He respects institutions and traditions and time-tested rules.
Others are convinced that the government is just broken. In fact, CNN, with the reporters from Time, has their new series, Broken Government – “CNN’s Broken Government examines all branches of government and explores how much of the system may be broken beyond repair.”
The top page links to their online poll – ninety percent of respondents agree – yep, the government is broken. Read the viewer emails – we’re screwed. CNN’s press release on the series is here, Media Matters’ explanation of all the facts CNN got wrong here, and there’s this item – two Tea Party guys telling CNN that the government is broken because the media, like CNN, make fun of the Tea Party folks. No one is very happy.
But CNN is late to the game. There was Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches. John Dean got there first, as that book was released on September 11, 2007:
In his eighth book, Dean takes the broadest and deepest view yet of the dysfunctional chaos and institutional damage that the Republican Party and its core conservatives have inflicted on the federal government. He assesses the state of all three branches of government, tracing their decline through the presidencies of Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II. Unlike most political commentary, which is concerned with policy, Dean looks instead at process – making the case that the 2008 presidential race must confront these fundamental problems as well. Finally, he addresses the question that he is so often asked at his speaking engagements: What, if anything, can and should politically moderate citizens do to combat the extremism, authoritarianism, incompetence, and increasing focus on divisive wedge issues of so many of today’s conservative politicians?
And from Publishers Weekly:
In his latest anti-Republican polemic, ex–Nixon White House counsel and Watergate whistle-blower Dean (Conservatives Without Conscience) moves from policy to process—how necessary government functions are corrupted and hobbled by Republican politicians and their ethos of authoritarianism, secrecy, partisanship and dogmatic contempt for the public sphere. It’s a long indictment. The last Republican Congress, Dean contends, rubber-stamped Bush’s policies, shut Democrats out of the legislative process, neglected pressing issues and made a shambles of government finances. Meanwhile, the Bush administration—the worst presidency ever—has sought to replace constitutional checks and balances with a unitary executive that brooks no congressional interference and undermines civil rights. All of this is enabled by the swelling ranks of fundamentalists on the federal bench and Supreme Court (some of whom, he insists, committed perjury to get confirmed). The author, a former Republican, bolsters his procedural analysis with insights from political scientists, but doesn’t offer procedural reforms; the cure he prescribes is to stop voting Republican. …
This was a long time coming, as that was followed by Broken Government – A Center for Public Integrity Investigation – from January 2009.
But a lot of that is looking backward. CNN is concerned with now. But it’s not as if no one had been considering process as much as policy. Things seem to be broken, and on one of the process issues, Jonathan Bernstein offers this:
There are lots of reasons that Senators like the filibuster (and its cousin, the hold): bottom line is that in many cases, those rules and norms work well for individual Senators.
Unless, of course, they don’t. Shifting from a Senate in which the minority will use supermajority rules only to obstruct rare very important issues (pre-1970), to a Senate in which the minority will use supermajority rules to obstruct every major item on the majority’s agenda (beginning in 1993), to a Senate in which the minority insists that almost every single item, controversial or not, needs 60 votes to pass (the new GOP standard in 2009) has changed the game.
Process does matter, as does personality, as political players act on incentives, and on just being annoyed. And it’s not just Jim Bunning. Bernstein adds this:
Richard Shelby’s attempt to shut down every single nomination to make a point about local pork forced people to see how badly that norm (the hold is not a Senate rule) was working. Republican insistence on forcing cloture votes on measures that then passed with overwhelming majorities demonstrated their lack of good faith (in other words, they did not appear to be using their leverage to bargain or to win, only to delay). And the shenanigans over the health care bill in December, including forcing the reading of bills on the Senate floor and insisting on keeping the Senate in until Christmas Eve Day for, once again, no apparent reason, certainly annoyed and frustrated the Democrats.
If the Republicans had filibustered the stimulus, the climate/energy bill, the health care bill, and a handful of other things (card check, a few nominations) that their constituents intensely oppose, then I think filibuster reform would have remained a minor issue – and the Republicans would be, as far as I can tell, not a whole lot worse off in terms of preventing legislation they actually care about. In fact, I think they would have been better off in many ways.
Bernstein says “a cynic might conclude that the GOP actually wants the filibuster eliminated” – but that’s not really it:
More likely, they’ve just over-learned the lessons of 1993-1994, and are operating under the mistaken impression that obstructing the majority is always good politics for the minority. On top of that, Republicans do seem much more interested in the short-term reactions of conservative talk show hosts than they are in, well, anything else (and the incentives of those hosts is not necessarily to promote the success of the Republican Party).
So of course the government is broken.
How broken? ABC’s “This Week” ended with its usual roundtable discussion, with Elizabeth Vargas hosting a panel of Cokie Roberts, Sam Donaldson, George Will, and Paul Krugman, and the last topic was introduced by Vargas this way:
Of course, this weekend, we have a brand-new White House social secretary appointed to replace Desiree Rogers, a close friend of the Obamas who is exiting after a bumpy tenure, I would say. Cokie, you spoke with her. She – she was highly criticized after the Obamas’ first state dinner in which she arrived, looking absolutely gorgeous, but in what some people later said was far too fancy a dress, but most importantly, that was the state dinner that was crashed by the Salahis, who walked in without an invitation when the social secretary’s office didn’t have people manning the security sites.
This led to an astoundingly long discussion of the Desiree Rogers situation, and Paul Krugman, the economist with his Nobel Prize and all, sat silently while the discussion went on and on and on, before eventually offering this:
Can I say that 20 million Americans unemployed, the fact that we’re worrying about the status of the White House social secretary….
Donaldson with a condescending smile responded – “Paul, welcome to Washington.”
That says it all. Steve Benen was curious – just “who was the target audience for the discussion of Desiree Rogers, who most Americans have never heard of, and whose White House position has nothing to do with public policy?”
Does it matter? But Desiree Rogers did arrive at Obamas’ first state dinner looking absolutely gorgeous, maybe. Many of us have no fashion sense. It’s hard to tell.
But be that as it may, there is that default leadership skill – the process is a mess and various folks, even some on your side, are being a total pain in the ass, and you’ve listened carefully and considered all the ideas, and changed this as much as possible to get some kind of agreement. And maybe the system is broken, but someone has got to do something. And now it’s time. So you do something. Someone has to.