There was a time Americans told Polish jokes, just as the Canadians told, or they still tell, those Newfie Jokes. No doubt the Swedes tell Danish jokes, and Paraguay folks tell Uruguay jokes. But they’re all the same jokes – how many Albanians or whatever does it take to screw in a light bulb and that sort of thing. You just fill in the blank. Someone has to be the clueless dummy, so we can feel smug and superior. If you grew up in a Czech-American home you knew all the Slovak jokes. There’s a reason there’s no Czechoslovakia any longer. Out here, down in San Pedro, the Croatians tell Serbian jokes, and east of Los Angeles in Alhambra, the Serbians tell Croatian jokes. And conservatives tell liberal jokes – one thinks of Dennis Miller’s visits to Bill O’Reilly’s show – and liberals tell conservative jokes – watch Olbermann for that sort of thing.
But Poland isn’t that odd a place. It’s about the same size and shape as Ohio is, at about the same latitude, with the same topography – a body of water to the north with heavy industry and shipping, a rolling middle with farms, and pleasant low mountains at the south. Ohio has Cleveland on the lake, and Poland has Gdansk (formerly Danzig) on the Baltic. And the weather’s about the same. Heck, even the food is about the same. Polish immigrants must have felt right at home.
But Poland has an unfortunate history – Germany to the west, not Indiana, and Russia to the east, not Pennsylvania. They had a hard time maintaining a viable nation. Everyone wanted a piece of the place, or was passing through on the way to someplace more important. Poles became the Rodney Dangerfield of Europe – no respect, I tell you – and thus the jokes.
But the problem was more than impossible neighbors, and the New York Times’ Paul Krugman offers his readers a brief history lesson:
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Polish legislature, the Sejm, operated on the unanimity principle: any member could nullify legislation by shouting “I do not allow!” This made the nation largely ungovernable, and neighboring regimes began hacking off pieces of its territory. By 1795 Poland had disappeared, not to re-emerge for more than a century.
Today, the U.S. Senate seems determined to make the Sejm look good by comparison.
No, it’s not a Polish joke, but Krugman is reacting to what Evan McMorris-Santoro reported in this item:
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) has put an extraordinary “blanket hold” on at least 70 nominations President Obama has sent to the Senate, according to multiple reports this evening. The hold means no nominations can move forward unless Senate Democrats can secure a 60-member cloture vote to break it, or until Shelby lifts the hold. …
The Mobile Press-Register picked up the story early this afternoon. The paper confirmed Reid’s account of the hold, and reported that a Shelby spokesperson “did not immediately respond to phone and e-mail messages seeking confirmation of the senator’s action or his reason for doing so.”
Shelby has been tight-lipped about the holds, offering only an unnamed spokesperson to reporters today to explain them. Aides to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid broke the news of the blanket hold this afternoon. Reid aides told Congress Daily the hold extends to “all executive nominations on the Senate calendar.”
The issue was two earmarks he’d won for his district, a new FBI anti-terrorism research lab, that the FBI didn’t really want, and a rewrite of the proposal to replace our fleet of air-to-air tankers that refuel our fighters and bombers – so Northrop would get the contract and build them in his district, not Boeing up in Kemp, Washington. So he put a “blanket hold” on all Obama nominees for even the most minor of positions, and four key positions at the Pentagon. No one would be confirmed until he got what he wanted. Was he abusing a Senate courtesy, obtaining a short personal hold on a Senate action for personal reasons? That’s a Senate tradition, and you really don’t have to explain yourself, and usually, with no questions asked, you can do this anonymously. No one usually knows who put the hold on this or that. But Shelby wasn’t shy. He told everyone.
And Krugman is a bit dismayed:
Rules that used to be workable have become crippling now that one of the nation’s major political parties has descended into nihilism, seeing no harm – in fact, political dividends – in making the nation ungovernable…. The truth is that given the state of American politics, the way the Senate works is no longer consistent with a functioning government.
Well, what had been a courtesy – as the Senate is a place of elaborate courtesy and tradition – can be used as a political weapon. It was always waiting there to be used. And Krugman is of the mind that this is the end of us:
We’ve always known that America’s reign as the world’s greatest nation would eventually end. But most of us imagined that our downfall, when it came, would be something grand and tragic.
What we’re getting instead is less a tragedy than a deadly farce. Instead of fraying under the strain of imperial overstretch, we’re paralyzed by procedure. Instead of re-enacting the decline and fall of Rome, we’re re-enacting the dissolution of 18th-century Poland.
Yep, we’re all Polish now. But Shelby released his blanket holds on Obama nominees on the morning of Monday, February 8 – but he’s maintaining his holds on a few unnamed nominees he says are directly related to “the Air Force tanker acquisition until the new Request for Proposal is issued.” But he doesn’t have to name the nominees he’d put a hold on. No gentleman would ask him to do that, and he is the honorable gentleman from Alabama himself. Would you question his honor? Senators don’t question each other’s honor. That’d be rude – bad form and all that.
But Krugman is interested in the specifics:
Last week, after nine months, the Senate finally approved Martha Johnson to head the General Services Administration, which runs government buildings and purchases supplies. It’s an essentially nonpolitical position, and nobody questioned Ms. Johnson’s qualifications: she was approved by a vote of 94 to 2. But Senator Christopher Bond, Republican of Missouri, had put a “hold” on her appointment to pressure the government into approving a building project in Kansas City.
This dubious achievement may have inspired Senator Richard Shelby, Republican of Alabama.
But Krugman is really interested in just what gives individual senators this kind of power:
Much of the Senate’s business relies on unanimous consent: it’s difficult to get anything done unless everyone agrees on procedure. And a tradition has grown up under which senators, in return for not gumming up everything, get the right to block nominees they don’t like.
In the past, holds were used sparingly. That’s because, as a Congressional Research Service report on the practice says, the Senate used to be ruled by “traditions of comity, courtesy, reciprocity, and accommodation.” But that was then.
Now the rules that used to be workable have become crippling, and nothing gets done. And that may be the point:
Today, by contrast, the Republican leaders refuse to offer any specific proposals. They inveigh against the deficit – and last month their senators voted in lockstep against any increase in the federal debt limit, a move that would have precipitated another government shutdown if Democrats hadn’t had 60 votes. But they also denounce anything that might actually reduce the deficit, including, ironically, any effort to spend Medicare funds more wisely.
And with the national GOP having abdicated any responsibility for making things work, it’s only natural that individual senators should feel free to take the nation hostage until they get their pet projects funded.
It’s every man for himself – and Krugman argues that the way the Senate works is no longer consistent with a functioning government:
Senators themselves should recognize this fact and push through changes in those rules, including eliminating or at least limiting the filibuster. This is something they could and should do, by majority vote, on the first day of the next Senate session.
Don’t hold your breath. As it is, Democrats don’t even seem able to score political points by highlighting their opponents’ obstructionism.
And he ends with this:
After the dissolution of Poland, a Polish officer serving under Napoleon penned a song that eventually – after the country’s post-World War I resurrection – became the country’s national anthem. It begins, “Poland is not yet lost.” Well, America is not yet lost. But the Senate is working on it.
And does this mean no more Polish jokes? They might be too close to home.
But we’ve been here before, and in an email, Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, reminds us of that:
Here’s another example of that “unanimity principle” in action, although a little closer to home: The United States of America under the Articles of Confederation. Under our (first) confederacy, each state had one vote – and, even scarier, any one of them could veto any legislation. So, of course, any state that didn’t like taxes (usually Rhode Island, but not exclusively) could prevent the country from raising any.
That “country,” if we can even call it that, also went the way of the Dodo. Enough Americans didn’t like the way it worked that they got together in Philadelphia and replaced the Articles with a proper Constitution. It’s just too bad the framers of the new document left it up to the Senate to write their own rules, instead of taking care of that matter themselves.
Still, Steve Benen is glad Krugman wrote the Polish column:
The thrust of this argument will no doubt be familiar to those who follow such matters closely, but columns like these are important in shaping the perceptions of the larger political world. Krugman is, by some measures, the most influential commentator in the country, so his efforts in shining a light on the dangerous dysfunction of the Senate carry weight.
The key is to get folks to appreciate the seriousness of the situation, because even many political reporters think the status quo is somehow routine. It’s not.
Some societies can’t recognize when they have a problem, while some societies recognize their problems but can’t identify solutions. Ours is a society that can recognize problems and craft effective solutions, but can’t act – on health care, on energy, on education, on the judiciary, etc. – because a discredited Republican Senate minority opposes the ability of the majority to govern.
So it comes down to this:
The more people realize that a functioning government is dependent on either a) reforming the Senate; or b) an even larger Democratic majority, the better.
But neither of those is likely. And Christopher Beam carefully explains in How a Bill Doesn’t Become a Law that there are eight ways to fix the Senate – and eight good reasons why they won’t happen. It seems changing any procedure, like the cloture vote, takes more votes than a cloture vote, and anyway, much of this is not procedure, but tradition. You don’t mess with that. Ask Tevye.
But Benen won’t let it go:
As recently as 2006, when Republican policymakers controlled the levers of power, it was the duty of elected officials to stick to their principles and work on the agenda they presented to voters. In 2010, with Democrats controlling the levers of power, it is the duty of elected officials to compromise on their principles, scale back the agenda they presented to voters, and govern in such a way as to make the rejected and discredited minority party happy.
Take health care policy, for example, the signature domestic policy effort of the Democratic Party. For about a year now, Dems have been making concessions and moving its reform plan closer to the middle. Medicare for all was considered, and taken off the table. Expanded Medicare eligibility was considered, and then taken off the table. A public option was considered, and then taken off the table. All the while, conservative Republicans were unwilling to make literally any concessions at all.
And now the latest Republican offer to Democrats is pretty straightforward – the “only” health care plan Republicans will consider is the Republican plan:
House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has been hinting at this, but made the point quite explicitly this morning. Cantor’s office told Greg Sargent “there’s not much to talk about” with the White House unless Democratic policymakers completely “scrap their government takeover” and agree to embrace the Republican policy in its entirety.
Republicans believe the status quo is unacceptable, but so is any health reform package that spends money we don’t have or raises taxes on small businesses and working families in a recession. To that point, House Republicans have offered the only plan, that will lower health care costs, which is what the President said was the goal at the start of this debate.
So, “bipartisanship” is defined as giving Republicans exactly what they want – period.
But that may be good politics. The bet is that these guys can prove to America that the Democrats can’t govern at all, so they should be tossed out. It has nothing to do with whether they can govern in their place. That’s not the point, and the bet is that Americans are so angry they won’t care about that, or the question won’t occur to them. And we tried that here in California. We recalled that Davis fellow and made Arnold Schwarzenegger governor – anyone would be better, and Arnold was way cool. Oops. That didn’t work out. But he wasn’t Davis. The parallel at the national level is painful.
Benen offers this:
The incessant talk about “bipartisanship” is itself suspect – I tend to think a governing majority should be able to give their agenda a shot, whether or not the minority approves – but even if we put that aside, how, exactly, are responsible officials supposed to work with a rival who demands nothing short of 100% satisfaction, despite being part of a failed minority?
That’s an interesting question. But you have to admit the Democrats are trapped. They give up everything they want, and what people wanted them to do, and elected them to do, or the small minority, that lost the election, shuts down the government, and knows that the nation will cheer them for bringing the whole place to a grinding halt. People like that, when they’re angry. That’s what the Tea Party movement is all about. Maybe they’re secretly Polish.
And so it plays out:
Republicans gave a chilly reception Monday to President Barack Obama’s invitation to discuss health care in a bipartisan, televised setting later this month, part of the White House effort to revive the stalled legislation.
The House and Senate GOP leaders said Obama and his fellow Democrats must shelve their long-debated health care bill, which was on the verge of becoming law until Republican Scott Brown won a special Senate election in Massachusetts last month.
Stop it all. Give it all up. Or they won’t show, and the American people will be outraged that the Democrats are so arrogant that they won’t listen to the Republicans, who are the Real Americans, or represent the real America, or something. The White House said Obama has no plans to do what they say, but he is willing to hear Republicans’ ideas.
It’s a showdown. Obama is telling them to put up or shut up – here are our ideas, and what are yours? They are saying they won’t reveal their ideas until Obama abandons all of his, and refused to mention them again. And they say they have the American people with them. Perhaps they do, and perhaps they don’t. There’s no way to tell. But both sides will play it out:
The meeting’s prospects for success are far from clear. GOP leaders insisted on starting from scratch. But many Democrats want to use their party’s remaining parliamentary muscle to enact their plans with as few changes as possible.
“If we are to reach a bipartisan consensus, the White House can start by shelving the current health spending bill,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
But House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said his earlier efforts to reach out to Republicans “did not result in any serious follow through to work together in a bipartisan fashion.” …
A White House statement Sunday said Obama repeatedly has made it clear “that he’s adamant about passing comprehensive reform similar to the bills passed by the House and the Senate.”
And it seems this will play out on television. This may be like watching the Polish parliament way back when. We’re all Polish now.
And Timothy Noah says it’s really all over in The Obama Show:
Consider the case of Scott Brown, the new Republican senator from Massachusetts. Way back in July, Sen. Brown – then a mere state senator – gave every indication that he supported health care reform. “They’re really mirroring what we did a couple of years ago through Gov. Romney’s leadership,” he said. Then Ted Kennedy died and somebody persuaded Brown that running against Obamacare might actually pay off. Suddenly, Obamacare bore no resemblance at all to Romneycare. “They’re two different programs,” Brown told Fox News’ Neil Cavuto last month. “What we have here is a free-market enterprise where we’re providing insurance in various levels to people in Massachusetts. The plans in Washington are a one-size-fits-all plan.” This last assertion, in addition to contradicting Brown’s earlier views, is blatantly false. Does that suggest a man capable of being shamed about political opportunism? …
Obama must know this. I therefore interpret his decision to host Ceasefire at the White House as another depressing sign that, his public assertions to the contrary, Obama has given up on health care reform. The White House has reportedly failed to provide any legislative guidance to Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill, furthering suspicions that Obama just can’t bring himself to dirty his fingernails with the sort of behind-the-scenes politicking necessary to pass major legislation. I’m honestly starting to wonder whether I’ve given more thought to legislative strategizing than the president has.
Steve Benen adds this:
OK, so Republicans want health care reform to be shaped entirely by their ideas. But would they tolerate a plan that includes some of their ideas? Apparently not – the existing proposal already does that.
Ezra Klein highlights an often-overlooked point this morning, noting that a surprising number of Republican proposals have already been incorporated in the reform plan pending in Congress. The Republicans’ “Solutions for America” page lists four planks – purchasing insurance across state lines, pooling customers together to lower prices, encouraging state innovation, and developing new malpractice systems – and literally all four are included in Democratic proposals.
On Sunday, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell responded to Barack Obama’s summit invitation by demanding Obama scrap the health-care reform bill entirely. This is the context for that demand. What they want isn’t a bill that incorporates their ideas. They’ve already got that. What they want is no bill at all. And that’s a hard position for the White House to compromise with.
But Obama might just be crazy like a Fox here:
The existing Democratic plan gives Republicans a great deal – no public option, no Medicare expansion, no “government takeover,” a huge reduction in the long-term budget deficit, and a wide variety of GOP ideas that have been incorporated into the plan. Republicans insisted Dems had to move to the middle with a centrist plan, and Democrats did exactly that.
And yet, the GOP refuses to take “yes” for an answer.
So what’s there to talk about on February 25? If the summit is really about striking a new compromise, this would seemingly be pointless. But if the summit is about delving into these plans, exploring what is and isn’t in the proposal, and making it clear for all to see that Republican ideas have been considered – and in several instances, embraced – the gathering has the potential to change public attitudes and score a key public-relations victory.
Indeed, I can imagine a scenario in which the president spells all of this out explicitly – writing out which provisions are included that make Dems happy, which provisions are included (and excluded) that make Republicans happy, and declaring the whole package a triumph of bipartisan compromise. The GOP will still almost certainly balk, but the result will give Democrats cover and put Republican intransigence on full display.
Yeah, Obama could do that, but they have refused to show up unless he drops everything. And they won’t. And they’ll be proud of not showing up. The nation will cheer them. And they’ll be returned to power. But of course that nation will be Poland.
So this is how it ends – kielbasa and Chopin.