Congressional Revolution Needed?
Ezra Klein and Steve Benen are recirculating this somewhat interesting chart on political polarization in America by political scientists Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole, and Howard Rosenthal.
Ezra argues that “this level of polarization makes it virtually impossible to govern in a system that is designed to foil majorities and require a constant three-fifths consensus. It’s not good if the country is virtually impossible to govern.” Steve says this is especially true when, pace Harold Meyerson, the opposition party “is dominated by Southern neo-Dixiecrats.”
Given this situation, Ezra observes, “Problems don’t stop mounting while we try and figure things out. We could respond to this by making it easier for the majority party to govern and thus less likely that we have some sort of massive crisis that totally realigns our politics.” He’s not talking about amending the Constitution but rather implementing unspecified rules changes in Congress that would strip power from the minority to get in the way.
Newt Gingrich made a bunch of changes in 1994. Democrats made a bunch of changes in 1975. John F. Kennedy made some big changes in the early 1960s. FDR changed the way Congress worked, and so too did Woodrow Wilson. This isn’t something invented by a bunch of bloggers in the early 21st century.
My recollection of both the Gingrich and post-Watergate reforms is that they were aimed at breaking down the power that came with seniority and to deal with public perception that Members were unduly influenced by outside interests rather than the ability of the opposition party to shape or block legislation. And I’ve got no idea whatever of what Kennedy did to reform Congress; indeed, I’m not sure how he would have done that from the White House. In the cases of FDR and Wilson, they simply seized power for the presidency during extreme national crises with the acquiescence of Congress.
Regardless, as Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein document, there have been numerous and nearly-continuous efforts to reform Congressional rules over the years. And I’d be quite happy, for example, to do away with or seriously limit the use of the filibuster, secret holds, and various other measures which make it easy for the minority to block even relatively minor legislation. Those are extra-constitutional at best and are not supposed to be used routinely as they now are.
At the same time, however, I disagree with the underlying premise of Ezra and Steve’s complaint. The fact that we’re more polarized on politics as a nation than we have been in decades, by definition, means that there’s little national consensus. That’s simply not a time for radical policy changes. Ramming through unpopular programs in a very polarized nation is a recipe for more polarization.
George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004 along with Republican majorities in both Houses of Congress. Among the signature programs he ran on was a radical overhaul of the Social Security retirement system that included a private option. Once we got to the legislative phase, however, and the public saw the actual program rather than an abstract notion, it became decidedly less popular. And the Democratic minority in Congress was able to block it. We may well be on the road to the exact same thing happening on health care reform, with the public option failing to catch on for now.
That is how our system is supposed to work. It’s precisely designed not to allow big change based on a small majority.
Furthermore, the Democrats have a reasonably comfortable margin in both the House and the Senate. To the extent that they’re failing to get things done, it’s not because “Southern neo-Dixiecrats” in the minority party are using dastardly tricks to foil the popular will but because of fissures within the Democratic coalition. Which, incidentally, the Republicans faced, too, back when they had the majority.
The nature of putting together a governing coalition in a politically polarized country is that getting over the top requires winning seats in states and districts that are either closely divided or are usually won by the other party. “Blue dog” Democrats are no more in line with the Progressive wing of their party than the Northeastern Republicans of yore were with the Southern Conservative wing of theirs.