Dysfunction Junction Forever

Dysfunction Junction is that Seattle bluegrass band – not to be confused with Dysfunkshun Junkshun – the disco-funk party band down in Austin, in Texas, available for weddings and such. Coming up with a good name for your band is hard. Everything from The Strawberry Alarm Clock to Counting Crows has been tried. Down the street here, at the Whisky and the Viper Room and the Roxy, there’s always a new and random and absurd set of band names on the marquees each night. They come and they go. Maybe it’s best to go with two rhyming words that everyone’s been rubbing together since the swing band era in the forties, if there’s a way to avoid trademark/copyright issues. It’s just that these two words, put together, should be in public domain by now. Everyone has probably put those two words together at one time or another, in a lame attempt to be clever, and now the current editors of Foreign Affairs have decided to call their latest issue Dysfunction Junction:

Francis Fukuyama kicks off our special package with a magisterial analysis of U.S. political decay, showing how today’s problems stem from the basic design of the country’s political institutions and have been exacerbated by increasingly hostile polarization. His conclusion is depressing: absent some sort of major external shock, the decay is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

Yascha Mounk looks at the rise of populism in the United States and Europe. Far from being the product of a temporary economic crisis, he finds, the Tea Party and its European cousins have emerged from the enduring inability of democratic governments to satisfy their citizens’ needs. Leaders must learn to co-opt and channel popular passions, addressing political outsiders’ legitimate grievances while bypassing their simplistic solutions.

And then there is the domestic scene:

The American right is in particular turmoil, as it tries to reverse a national losing streak while also accommodating the ideological demands of an increasingly angry and extreme base. David Frum argues that the Republican Party’s central problem is its increasing dependence on the old and the rich and that a revival of its fortunes will have to wait for the emergence of a truly multiethnic, socially tolerant conservatism. And Byron York assesses the work of the party’s would-be reformers and stresses the importance of appealing to the middle class.

As for the left, while its divisions may look less dramatic, differences lurk there as well. Michael Kazin juxtaposes the left’s string of victories in the cultural sphere, where progressives have expanded individual rights for society’s oppressed, with its equally notable string of defeats on the economic front, as the left has tried to create a more egalitarian society motivated by a spirit of solidarity. And Michael Tomasky assesses the potential for a revolt against the centrist views of Democratic elites by the party’s progressive masses, led by a champion such as Senator Elizabeth Warren.

All of that is behind an impressive paywall, so you’ll have to spend a considerable amount to read all that, or buy the dead-tree hardcopy magazine itself, but that may not be necessary. The summaries will do. The structure of representative government we set up in the late eighteen century, with its elaborate system of check and balances, which we have continually refined since then, seems to have stopped working, torn apart by its own internal contractions – or perhaps it never did account for human nature. Actual people always mess up theoretically perfect systems. Every robot in every science fiction movie would tell you that, and has. That is what HAL told Dave in 2001: A Space Odyssey. People want what they want, even if it will ruin everything. Others will, however, try to stop them, for their own idiosyncratic reasons, and can stop them – and then nothing gets done either way. Things stop working. We’re there now.

That just happened again:

Senate Democrats, by a single vote, stopped legislation that would have approved construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, one of the most fractious and expensive battles of the Obama presidency.

The vote represented a victory for the environmental movement, but the fight had taken on larger dimensions as a proxy war between Republicans, who argued that the project was vital for job creation, and President Obama, who had delayed a decision on building it.

Senator Mary L. Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana, who is facing a runoff election Dec. 6, had pleaded with her colleagues throughout the day to support the pipeline, leading to a rare suspense-filled roll call in the Senate. But she was ultimately rebuffed and fell short by one. The bill was defeated with 59 votes in favor and 41 against, and Ms. Landrieu needing 60 votes to proceed.

The bill didn’t proceed to simple majority vote – she couldn’t break the de facto filibuster – and this was curious, because this wasn’t about the pipeline:

The battle over approving the pipeline, which will carry petroleum from the oil sands of Canada to the Gulf Coast of Texas, ultimately became a proxy war for the Louisiana Senate seat, where Ms. Landrieu and Representative Bill Cassidy, a Republican, are locked in fight for votes in their oil-rich state ahead of a Dec. 6 runoff election.

Ms. Landrieu – who, if re-elected, will lose her coveted position as chairwoman of the Energy Committee when Republicans take the Senate majority next year – spent the past few days working furiously to round up Democratic support for her bill, which she had hoped would be her last, best chance of holding on to her Senate seat.

She had a special need. Her party seems to have decided she was going to lose that runoff election anyway, so they voted for the environment:

Both Mr. Cassidy and Ms. Landrieu were eager to take credit for supporting the Keystone bill back home, where their state’s economy is heavily dependent on oil-industry jobs. Speaking on the floor, Republicans sought to cast the legislation as “Congressman Cassidy’s Keystone jobs bill,” while Democrats described it as Ms. Landrieu’s brainchild.

Even Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, who did not support the bill and said Keystone XL stood for “extra lethal,” was sure to note that credit for the legislation belonged to Ms. Landrieu.

“Senator Landrieu is the only reason that we are debating this today,” Ms. Boxer said. “Set the politics aside. Let the record be clear forever: This debate would not be before this body were it not for Senator Landrieu’s insistence.”

That’s pretty nasty, and Landrieu had cover too. Obama was going to veto the thing, making her support of this ugly pipeline moot, after the fact, if it came to that. It didn’t come to that. Nothing got done. Next year’s thoroughly Republican Congress can revisit this, unless oil prices continue to plummet, making extracting oil from tar sands in Canada, an extremely expensive process, just not worth doing at all. That’s a market-based solution the Republicans never saw coming. The Republicans said building that pipeline would create nearly fifty thousand jobs – but the number of net jobs that would be created, when all was said and done, would be fifty full-time jobs – so they dodged a bullet there. They could have argued that no one gives a shit about the environment or about global warming or any of that stuff, but many do. They couldn’t go there. This is over for now.

A few minutes later it was this:

A wall of Republican opposition brought down a controversial National Security Agency reform bill Tuesday night, leaving the future of the package in doubt ahead of a Republican takeover next year.

Sen. Patrick Leahy’s legislation that would end the NSA’s bulk data collection narrowly fell short of the Senate’s 60-vote threshold, 58-42, a major defeat for privacy advocates, civil libertarians and a White House that supports the bill. The filibuster of the proposal prevents it from even coming to the floor for debate.

The one filibuster was the mirror of the other:

Opposition was led by Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell and colleague Sen. Rand Paul, who both voted down the legislation, though for different reasons. McConnell, like many Republicans, voted it down because he believed the reforms went too far, while Paul voted against the bill because it did not go far enough.

The issues were clear:

Other heavy hitters joined the view that NSA proposal would make it difficult to combat terrorism, a crowd that included Marco Rubio of Florida, another potential White House aspirant.

“They cannot cite a single example of this program being abused,” Rubio said of the bill’s supporters. “Not one. We are dealing with a theoretical threat.”

Advocates of the bill made impassioned pleas to advance it past a filibuster, the rare proposal that drew the support of both GOP Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Democratic Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein of California.

“It would help address the problem of the American government spying on its citizens without cause,” said Lee, a co-sponsor of the bill, on the Senate floor before the vote. “What opponents of this bill fail to appreciate is that most Americans are deeply, deeply, concerned about the collection of their personal information.”

Polls do show that, but the “we’ll do anything because the terrorists are going to kill us all today” crowd needed to show that they were ruthless and strong, because they think that’s where the key voters are these days. Key voters matter far more than general public opinion. General public opinion doesn’t vote. Specific people do – and this will come up again next year too, when the same thing will happen. Once again, the merits of the legislation won’t matter much. This is about political positioning. One of these folks will be running for president the next year.

In both case there was not a majority vote. Each side seems fine with structural anomaly – the sixty-vote wall that much be breached to get to that majority vote, the wall that seems to assure that nothing gets done. Kevin Drum puts it this way:

Both bills had majority support. Both failed thanks to filibusters. It’s good to see that life is back to normal in Washington DC.

Then there is the issue of President Obama changing immigration rules via executive action, where the latest USA Today poll shows the Democrats want Obama to act now, and Republicans want him to wait for them to come up with legislation, finally, and independents are split down the middle. There is, however, this curious crosstab:

On one more issue, Americans are in agreement: The elections two weeks ago aren’t going to make Washington work better. Just 15% predict Obama and the new Congress, now under solid Republican control, will work together more closely to reach bipartisan compromises.

Kevin Drum puts that this way:

The American public is pretty politically astute, I’d say. They may not be up to speed on all the details of policymaking, but when it comes to the big picture, they know a lot more than the Beltway pundits seem to.

They may be more astute than David Brooks – everyone’s favorite reasonable and pleasant “nice” conservative (he never shouts) – who offers this:

The White House has not privately engaged with Congress on the legislative areas where there could be agreement. Instead, the president has been super-aggressive on the one topic sure to blow everything up: the executive order to rewrite the nation’s immigration laws. …

I sympathize with what Obama is trying to do substantively, but the process of how it’s being done is ruinous. Republicans would rightly take it as a calculated insult and yet more political ineptitude. Everybody would go into warfare mode. We’ll get two more years of dysfunction that will further arouse public disgust and antigovernment fervor (making a Republican presidency more likely).

This move would also make it much less likely that we’ll have immigration reform anytime soon. White House officials are often misinformed on what Republicans are privately discussing, so they don’t understand that many in the Republican Party are trying to find a way to get immigration reform out of the way. This executive order would destroy their efforts.

Kevin Drum, again, is certainly not impressed:

In 2006, Republicans lost. President Bush’s first action was to order a surge in Iraq, which infuriated Democrats. In 2008, Republicans lost. They responded by adopting a policy of obstructing every possible action by Democrats – including even a modest stimulus package during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. In 2012, Republicans lost. They responded with brinkmanship over the fiscal cliff, a flat refusal to fill open judicial positions on the DC circuit court, and an endless bellowing rage over Benghazi and other manufactured outrages.

By comparison, all Obama is doing is something he’s been saying he’ll do for nearly a year. It’s not even all that big a deal if you step back for a moment and think about it. Several million undocumented immigrants are going to be told they’re officially free of the threat of deportation for a temporary period, as opposed to the status quo, in which they’re effectively free of the threat of deportation. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a big deal for the immigrants affected. But in terms of actual impact on immigration policy writ large? It doesn’t really do much.

And yet, this single action is apparently enough to – rightly! – put Republicans into warfare mode. If that’s true, I can only conclude that literally anything Republicans don’t like is enough to justify going into warfare mode. That’s certainly been how it’s worked in the past, anyway.

That’s been a root cause of our dysfunctional government for six years now, but it doesn’t have to be that way:

Look: Republicans can decide for themselves if they want to go to war. If they want to pass yet another bill repealing Obamacare, that’s fine. If they want to sue the president over the EPA or immigration, that’s fine. If they want to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, that’s fine. I assume Obama will win some of these battles and lose others, but in any case will treat these as the ordinary cut and thrust of politics instead of declaring them calculated insults that have infuriated him so much he can’t possibly ever engage with the GOP again. In other words, he’ll act like an adult, not a five-year-old.

This is what we expect from presidents. Why don’t we expect the same from congressional Republicans? Why are they allowed to stamp and scream whenever something doesn’t go their way, and everyone just shrugs? Once and for all, why don’t we demand that they act like adults too?

That’s a good question. Perhaps we expect dysfunction now, as how things are and will always be from now on. We shrug, but something else bothers Drum too:

I didn’t bother with Brooks’ claim that Republicans are “privately” discussing real, honest-to-goodness immigration reform, but color me skeptical. If they want to engage on this subject, they need to discuss it with Obama, not between themselves. They’ve had plenty of time for that, and have never been willing to buck the Tea Party to get something done.

Ed Kilgore addresses that:

Give me a break. The Senate acted on comprehensive immigration reform seventeen months ago. Since then the principal Republican cosponsor of that bill, Marco Rubio, has practically toured the country in sackcloth and ashes, recanting his heresy. The House has done nothing, other than a hasty symbolic “response” to the summer border refugee crisis that wound up being shaped by Steve King and Michele Bachmann. The GOP’s center of gravity on immigration has steadily shifted to “deport ’em all.” So what will further delay mean – a big debate over how much to spend on police dogs and box cars?

Even that, of course, might be appropriate, since the current law is “deport ’em all,” without the resources to “deport ’em all” – which forces the executive branch to exercise prosecutorial discretion on whom to pursue, and that’s why we are where we are today.

Kilgore will cut these guys no slack at all:

If you’re going to harshly criticize Obama for taking a more definitive position on prosecutorial guidelines, you need to identify some alternative strategy. Is it more police dogs and box cars? Is it random prosecution, hoping the fear of arbitrary state power makes life difficult enough for the undocumented that they “self-deport?”

“Wait!” won’t cut it anymore.

Jamelle Bouie, at Slate, is a bit more detailed about this:

One of the great ironies of the Obama administration is that – on several occasions – it was pushed to the left by Republicans. The Affordable Care Act didn’t have to have the Medicaid expansion – a huge liberal reform of a major government program. It didn’t have to have the generous subsidies, the “Cadillac tax” on expensive, high-income insurance plans, or the broad coverage for birth control and other contraceptives. At any point during the health care debate – which lasted from the spring of 2009 to the beginning of 2010 – Republicans could have bargained with Democrats to remove or weaken those provisions for their support on the final bill. And the White House would have gone along. The president wanted bipartisan support, and with his post-partisan faith still strong, he would have sacrificed a lot to get it.

They chose dysfunction instead:

Instead, they fought a war, attacking reform, denying their participation – and in the process – marking the right of the Democratic Party as the conservative boundary of discussion over the bill. That’s why, after President Obama finally signed the Affordable Care Act into law, former Bush speechwriter David Frum called the occasion “the most crushing legislative defeat” for Republicans since the 1960s. “Barack Obama badly wanted Republican votes for his plan. Could we have leveraged his desire to align the plan more closely with conservative views,” asked Frum, “To finance it without redistributive taxes on productive enterprise – without weighing so heavily on small business – without expanding Medicaid? Too late now. They are all the law.”

They could have had half a loaf, which is always better than none, but they decided to it was far more noble and principled to go hungry, and perhaps that did impress their base, which got nothing at all. The resultant white-hot anger of their base has been politically useful to the Republicans. Only David Frum seemed unhappy with nothing, but there are those who, if they can’t have exactly what they want, will accept nothing at all – you know, four-year-olds.

Bouie sets out where that led:

This dynamic – Republicans losing their shot for more conservative policy at the cost of some cooperation – played out with entitlement reform (a small concession on taxes would have won a “grand bargain” on Medicare and Social Security), and environmental policy (instead of a market-based “cap and trade,” Republicans will get new regulations and a more bureaucratic approach). And now it is about to play out with immigration, too.

They don’t know what they’re missing:

According to an analysis from the Migration Policy Institute, this plan – which might build on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program – could reach more than five million people, depending on the exact criteria the administration applies. Compared to the Senate immigration bill passed last year – or the guidelines crafted by House Republicans the same year – the White House plan is less far reaching. At the same time, it lacks the border security and enforcement mechanisms of the bipartisan and Republican proposals. Under the president’s plan, millions of immigrants will receive legal protection without any of the requirements of the bipartisan Senate bill, from thousands of new border and customs agents, to billions of dollars in new enforcement funding, to strict triggers for when unauthorized immigrants are even eligible to apply for legal status and citizenship. Liberals will have made an important policy advance – and one likely to stick, judging by similar executive orders by previous presidents- without making substantive concessions to conservative priorities.

I wouldn’t call it a defeat on the same scale of the Affordable Care Act, but it is a defeat.

Of course it is, but they see compromise, for some of what they want, as defeat. Go figure:

Given the high priority for immigration reform, there’s no question Democrats could have worked with House Republicans to craft a counterpart to the Senate bill. And indeed, there’s a good chance they would have made even more concessions if it guaranteed a vote. As with health care, Republicans could have gotten more conservative policy than they otherwise will if they had backed down from their relentless opposition.

There’s no good response to that:

Now, the obvious reply to this is that the president’s executive action is lawless – that it’s outside of the bounds of presidential power. And if that’s true, then it’s hard to pin the outcome on Republicans; unlike health care – where Democrats really could act regardless of what Republicans did – immigration legislation is only possible with GOP cooperation. In normal circumstances, the president backs down when he loses a legislative fight. If, instead, he responds with an illegal executive order, then it’s unfair to point the finger at the opposition and say, you did this.

But, GOP assertions aside, there’s no evidence the president’s plan is illegal.

Yes, that is a pesky problem. Now, on this and everything else, we have reached that dysfunction junction. It would be nice if that were only a bluegrass band, from Seattle of all places. It isn’t. America is broken, maybe for good this time.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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