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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.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Doesn’t it take two to tango polarize?

    I won’t hold my breath for Mr. Klein, et al, to make the same claim the next time the Democrats aren’t in charge.

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  2. just me says:

    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.

    Pretty much sums up my thinking on the issue. What is the point of having a minority party, if they aren’t able to influence legislation at all? Why all the whining with the current situation, when both houses of congress have the ability to ram through almost anything they want given their majorities?

    I also think it is interesting that all these calls for rules changes, and concern over the power of the minority party are a bit suspicious given the lines we were fed by the same people back when the GOP was in charge. Seems like back then there was a lot more talk about giving voice to the minority party.

    There is a place for both voices in congress-the one keeps the other in check, but when the majority has a fillibuster proof majority in the senate, and a substantial cushion in the house, when legislation isn’t getting passed, the probably probably isn’t with the minority party, but with moderates within the majority party.

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  3. odograph says:

    Of course two can polarize, which is why we need more … something probably only possible with a Parliament.

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  4. odograph says:

    BTW, the randomly assigned Gravatars are extremely annoying.

    I get that this is the point, and that I’m supposed to be annoyed into uploading my own, but I’m too stubborn for that. I’ll just start hating the Gravatar idea.

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  5. steve says:

    I agree that we need to somehow limit the use of the filibuster. I think it weakens the Senate and further contributes to our government being dominated by the exec and judicial branches. Secret holds should go also. The problem is when to enact such changes so that it does nt unduly benefit one party.

    Steve

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  6. John Burgess says:

    Given that Congress represents a population that is mostly evenly divided on most issues, I think a ‘winner take all’ modification–which seems to be what Klein is proposing–is way beyond a step too far.

    It’s nice, however, to see that relativity–‘what it looks like depends on where you stand–is well and healthy. Klein’s proposal is certainly not what the minority party was touting a few years ago.

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  7. odograph says:

    To make a little bit more of a case, I believe in a conservative representative democracy. I want the will of the people to be achieved, but in a smooth way with incremental transitions. Our two party flip flop doesn’t do that. It produces first arrogant majorities and then later, lame ducks.

    To use two olden-day examples, what if the Nixon and Carter governments “fell” when they host majority support? Wouldn’t that be better than Presidents holding on by their fingernails?

    Would Clinton’s government have fallen?

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  8. John Burgess says:

    BTW, even though I’ve a gravatar–indeed, have a gravatar solely because of OTB–I never see it in comments. I’m only getting a randomly assigned thing.

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  9. Jim says:

    From 2000 – 2006 when they had the majority the Republicans wanted to make it easier to pass legislation and confirm judges (i.e. Nuclear option). Of course the minority and pundits aligned with their cause claimed that these proposed changes were near to be fascist power grabs.

    Now the majority has changed and it is now time for the Democrats and their aligned pundits to make things easier….for good governance of course. And the Republicans and their pundits laments any changes.

    Hypocrisy….American as apple pie.

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  10. James Joyner says:

    BTW, the randomly assigned Gravatars are extremely annoying.

    They’re not very good. I prefer that to everyone having the same blank face image. I found an alternate solution – displaying no Gravatar at all for those without one.

    BTW, even though I’ve a gravatar–indeed, have a gravatar solely because of OTB–I never see it in comments. I’m only getting a randomly assigned thing.

    That’s truly weird. It should automatically fill in based on your email address. Are you supplying the same email that you did when you signed up for the Gravatar?

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  11. odograph says:

    They’re not very good. I prefer that to everyone having the same blank face image. I found an alternate solution – displaying no Gravatar at all for those without one.

    Thank you. I agree that the blank face image is a little better, if that were possible.

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  12. Dave Schuler says:

    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.

    Unless you’re an authoritarian or a believer in the Alka-Seltzer theory of political change (“try it—you’ll like it”) as I believe many in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party are.

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  13. Dave Schuler says:

    BTW, it’s strikes me as bizarre to call for the purging of centrist figures from both of the major political parties and then complain about polarization. I think that’s a path that leads inevitably to tyranny.

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  14. [...] James Joyner [...]

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  15. Gus says:

    That is quite the chart. From the mysterious polarization unit to the lower bound being 0.4, it’s a weird useless graph.

    Am I to take it that we are now as polarized as right after the Civil War? And that the Great Depression marked a nirvana of harmony?

    And what happens if we hit 1.0?

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  16. JohnR says:

    Excellent article and a perfect explanation for why Obama should have followed Clinton’s strategy in 1994…and built a Centrist coalition.

    Obama damaged his credibility by signing a badly flawed stimulus bill, and then topping it by expressing support for the disasterous Cap & Trade bill. Is it any wonder that Centrists and swing voters have lost confidence in him, and certainly in the congress?

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  17. Ryan says:

    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.

    The difference is, that when the democrats warned of the danger of placing the rainy day fund in the private market, they were prescient. When John Boehner warns that health care will cause us to euthanize the elderly, he’s lying.

    As for whether or not the Obama administration should moderate their agenda to avoid upsetting the right, it’s become clear that anything short of pushing Republican policies will be met with apoplexy.

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  18. Joe Camel says:

    Can anyone tell me how many “laws” are currently in place nationally from the federal level. Can anyone tell me what each one of them is, states, etc.
    Are any of them not germane now? Still on the books, but outdated? Can anyone show me in the IRS for example that can give you the same answer if you talk to 100 random employees on tax laws?
    Bottom line, most of what is happening today is not part of the federal governments assigned responsibility, but..somehow they are going gangbusters.
    Picture a world where everyone registers as an independent. I did just that, as well as 20 others I know.

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  19. odograph says:

    Heh, you guys need to check out the leftists mad at Obama for abandoning them. That’s usually the sign that you have a moderate. It can’t just be seen from the right.

    Is Obama Abandoning the Left Wing of the Democratic Party?

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  20. Ryan Bigot says:

    YES odograph, That was written by a far far far left liberal like Ryan. If Obama hasn’t put Republican and Independents in Concentration Camps by now ,They are NOT HAPPY!! HE along with RYAN would like nothing better then any opposition to be destroyed to his Fuhrer’s rein of terror. IF it wasn’t done by an extreme zealot of the far left wing these guys HATE it.They despise anyone that thinks for themselves and especially hates they traitor Democrats that dare be moderate at all.They have a special place in the whipping sheds that Obama and his cretins like to take them,never to be heard from again, or at least until them have been beaten into submission. Remember OBAMA DEMANDS you respect his authoritaaaaaeeeee!!!!

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  21. RW Rogers says:

    It seems to me that Klein’s writings demonstrate that he believes in majority rule only when it suits his personal agenda. At other times, he is quite content to use authoritarian measures to impose his will upon the uneducated masses for their own good.

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  22. Gary Marchinke says:

    This from The Congressional Spending Psalm; “Big government is our shepherd; the bigger it gets the more we lack.”

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  23. GlennO says:

    Would you consider an analysis on the impact of Gerrymandering on the House and the 17th Amendment on the Senate and our governments dysfunction via polarization?

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