Is America Ungovernable?

Filibuster Mr. Smith Goes to Washington Jimmy Stewart
Progressives are increasingly frustrated that, despite having won the presidency by a comfortable margin and having solid majorities in the House and Senate — where they have a “filibuster-proof” 60 votes — they still can’t enact the policies they want.   Matt Yglesias says “smarter elements in Washington DC are starting to pick up on the fact that it’s not tactical errors on the part of the president that make it hard to get things done, it’s the fact that the country has become ungovernable.”

How so?  Well, it seems that Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, has, in the words of Steve Pearlstein, “decided that the only way for Republicans to win is for President Obama to lose, and he will use lies, threats and all manner of parliamentary subterfuge to obstruct the president’s programs.”  If only the “Good Mitch,” Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, were in his place!  Why, he’s “a principled but practical conservative who respects the intelligence of voters and would rather get something done than score political points.”

Matt doesn’t share Pearlstein’s sunny optimism.  Instead, he agrees (as do I) with Ezra Klein that being chief executive of a state rather than the opposition leader in the upper chamber of the national legislature  creates starkly different institutional incentives.   Matt concludes,

We’re suffering from an incoherent institutional set-up in the senate. You can have a system in which a defeated minority still gets a share of governing authority and participates constructively in the victorious majority’s governing agenda, shaping policy around the margins in ways more to their liking. Or you can have a system in which a defeated minority rejects the majority’s governing agenda out of hand, seeks opening for attack, and hopes that failure on the part of the majority will bring them to power. But right now we have both simultaneously. It’s a system in which the minority benefits if the government fails, and the minority has the power to ensure failure. It’s insane, and it needs to be changed.

There’s a general consensus, which I’m part of, that our national politics have gotten more polarized and ugly in recent years.  We’re not where we were in the early 1800s, much less the mid-to-late 1800s, but it’s bad.   The filibuster, once a rare tool used to fight truly major changes, is now a routine legislative tactic.  And that’s frustrating and perhaps should be changed at the margins.  (For example, presidential appointees should get an up-or-down majority rule vote.)

That said, the institutions have not changed substantially in recent memory.  Some readers may recall the days of the George W. Bush administration, when a president with narrower margins in both Houses of Congress managed to get all manner of legislation passed, including a massive expansion of the Medicare entitlement and the authorization to fight two wars.  Off the books, no less!  During those days, Tom Daschle and then Harry Reid used every tool at their disposal to block legislation.  Sometimes, they were successful, as with Social Security privatization, perhaps the signature domestic plank of Bush’s re-election campaign; sometimes, less so.

Recall, too, that Obama has managed to get trillions of dollars in unpopular spending through Congress and seems to be on the verge of a massive realignment of the nation’s health care system.

But, you say, the health care mess proves Matt’s point:  The final bill won’t look anything like progressives want.   Yes, I’d retort, but progressives are something like 6 percent of the country.   Indeed, poll after poll shows that twice as many Americans are conservative as liberal.  It’s been that way for the entirety of Matt’s political lifetime.

gallup-ideology-trends-1992-2009Ah, you’d counter, but Democrats won the most recent elections, which means that Americans gave the green light to Nancy Pelosi to enact her wildest fantasies into law.   No, I’d say, they were tired of George W. Bush and liked this Obama guy, who seemed smart and reasonable.

While the minority has frequently abused their ability to act as obstructionists in recent years, the system mostly works as it is supposed to.  The country is polarized on a lot of key issues, which means there isn’t consensus for radical change.   In the case of health care, that’s perhaps too bad as we need some pretty radical changes to keep the system from crashing.  The problem is, there’s little agreement on what those changes should be.

But the president announced the other night that he was going to dramatically expand an increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan and he’ll get what he wants; the people elected him as commander-in-chief and the opposition is itself polarized.  He managed to essentially take over two of the Big 3 auto companies with nary a whimper from Congress.   He got Cash for Clunkers through, twice.  Indeed, all manner of legislation has been signed into law since he took office a little over ten months ago, despite an “ungovernable” system.

That little of it matches either Matt’s preferences or mine is an indication of how idiosyncratic our preferences are, not of a failure of “the system.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    What I think that Matt is missing is that a Congressman represents his or her district and the president administers the executive branch for the country, not just for those who voted for him or her.

  2. Gerry W. says:

    Well, you have two parties with failed ideologies. You have 535 congressmen and senators that have different minds. They both spend money for their ideals. We elect presidents off the street. Obama a social activist and Bush a social conservative that have no idea in running a country. It’s really hilarious.

    We see Alan Mullaly of Ford turn around Boeing and Ford. He is highly educated and trained for what he does. And yet we vote idiots in the White House. And there is not one politician in the limelight that is capable of running the country.

  3. Bill H says:

    That poll is meaningless because most Americans don’t know what they are. A study once showed that many people who describe themselves as “moderate,” for instance, are not actually moderate but score on tests as either conservative or liberal. Likewise, people who describe themselves as “conservative” score on tests as moderate. They are not deliberately misrepresenting themselves, but they pick they label that describes how they want to be seen rather than how they actually think.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    In backhanded support of the previous commenter, from his or her own point of view most people are at the center of their own universes, particularly their political universes.

  5. PD Shaw says:

    If you believe the Constitutional framework necessitated the rise of political parties to get anything done, then the weakness of the political parties is the first cause. And the relevant poll would be party identification.

  6. JKB says:

    Those “smarter elements in Washington DC” mentioned seem to be weak on inductive reasoning. Weakness that belie their smartness. Perhaps this explains their susceptibility to embrace the climate warming alarmists who suffer from a similar weakness.

    The failure of one leader to govern does not constitute a pattern to support the theory the nation is ungovernable. We could only hope to support this hypothesis after several, preferably very different, leaders were unable to govern. This is especially true in that less than a year ago, the governability of the nation was not in doubt and the directly applicable change in that time has been the transfer of the presidency to an individual with no demonstrated governing or legislating ability.

    It might be correct to doubt the smartness of these “smarter elements” but a more likely cause is willful ignorance to avoid the unpleasant truth that the current leader does not appear to be able to govern. Or perhaps just an expression of the elite’s disaffection with the republican form of government.

  7. Gerry W. says:

    JKB,

    You say, “the governability of the nation was not in doubt and the directly applicable change in that time has been the transfer of the presidency to an individual with no demonstrated governing or legislating ability.”

    Funny on how I viewed Bush 8 years ago as with you on Obama. And all the problems that piled up through those years. I have never witnessed such a mess in my lifetime.

  8. anjin-san says:

    the unpleasant truth that the current leader does not appear to be able to govern

    Right. At the moment, we are crawling from the wreckage of 8 years of Bush/Cheney/GOP “leadership”. If it makes you feel better to blame this train wreck on Obama, well. ok. Politics above country. You must be one of those “conservatives” we hear so much about…

  9. While I think there are aspects of the filibuster rule that need to be reform, I have to agree with the most general complaint, namely that it introduces a backdoor supermajority requirement to the sent.

    I consider this a bug, rather than a feature. In general, bills passed by large majorities tend to be better constructed than those passed by “50% plus one” style votes.

    And as a purely practical matter, the reality is that any country where 40+% of the population is routinely having laws passed over their objection is not going to remain stable in the long term.

  10. I meant “I consider this a feature, rather than a bug” there.

  11. John Lee Hooker says:

    Once nearly 50% of the country pays NO taxes and realizes they can VOTE benefits for themselves at NO cost to themselves, the divide begins. It’s ideological, but it’s also economics.

  12. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    The answer is obvious. We need a leader who knows what is right for each and every one of us. Sort of like the man we call President today. Not necessarily a man of accomplishment but a man of vision. Vision he began early in his life. Someone with the audacity to change. Change how our nation operates. Change the system so that it is not reflective of the will of the governed but more in line with what is best for the governed. Only a gifted man could know these things, like our current President. He should surround himself with like thinking people, regardless of their backgrounds, in a form of peer review, that is understood by those with the education to understand such things as how outcomes are more important than how one gets there. We need a leader who understands, like our current President, that liberty is really not meant for everyone, that national sovereignty is not as important as world unity, that it is ok for science to reflect political ideology. We need a leader who believes we exhale a polutant. Wait! We have that now. Oh joy.

  13. just me says:

    I find it amusing that somehow the minority party obstructing legislation is an issue now that it is the GOP in the minority.

    In the end, I agree that things seem very polarized, and honestly there are just some issues that don’t have enough edges for the minority party to whittle at when it comes down to the details. Personally I don’t think I care for a government where the minority party is just supposed to rollover and take it. Sure it is frustrating when my favored party is the majority, but it isn’t so bad when the other party is in control.

  14. JohnR22926 says:

    Gee, I guess it’s still the republicans that are the problem. Even though the Dems have a fillibuster proof majority it’s the Republicans that are the problem. Uh, no…it’s the fact that you have a tiny handful of Blue Dogs that don’t want to get wiped slick in 2010 and won’t vote for the most radical and fiscally irresponsible legislation since Medicare was enacted. But, gee, the Leftists say it’s ALL the republicans fault and we know they never lie. One final point; I don’t recall all this gnashing of teeth back when Bush had Rep majorities; back then, the Left resorted to the fillibuster, and stalling tactics were called “noble resistance”. I DO agree the nation is utterly divided though; it’s because the Woodstock generation is now in charge and they’re the most irresponsible, greedy, and ideological generation we’ve ever had.

  15. Nationalize now says:

    U.S. is too big. It must be break up. Corporate Democracy and Liberalism is dead. Liberalism is the concept of the 17-18th century. Everything must be nationalized or “the people” will lose in the long run. Everyone will suffer. Nationalize now or be Zimbabwe later. The working (white) class will vanish anyway. The poor blacks and latinos have higher birth rates. Nationalize banks and land now! Dont let jews reach important positions like Goldman Sachs, Rockefeller, Rothschild, Bernanke, Geithner, Feingold, Blankfein and many German jews more. They still play 2 games. The jew-game and the game for the non-believers. They are mentally ill heretics and jesus´ killers. The next economic dip will come. Suicides will rise. Sodom and Gomorra we are coming.

  16. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    We need a Strong leader who answers to no one but his own ambition. One who does not need to consult a legislative body. A man willing to assign tasks to those trusted associates he knows believe the same way he does. Men like Kevin Jennings who knows what is best for our children, like the proper manner to perform oral sex. We need someone who has his own symbol for use to adhere to. A man recognized as a man of peace, and had been awarded awards for the future possible actions he might take. We need the campus bull sh*tter.

  17. George B says:

    America is not “ungovernable”, but the country is split between people who want less government and people who want more. The founding fathers designed a system that potentially accommodates these differences with 50 separate state governments plus many local governments. What is polarizing the country is the ratcheting up of the size and role of the national government instead of allowing more regional variation.

    We really need term limits for House and Senate members. The current seniority system insures that white haired members from the safest seats representing the extremes of the political spectrum rise to the leadership positions. Not sure what the term limits should be, but 20 or more years in the same office is too long.

  18. section9 says:

    We need a Strong leader who answers to no one but his own ambition. One who does not need to consult a legislative body. A man willing to assign tasks to those trusted associates he knows believe the same way he does. Men like Kevin Jennings who knows what is best for our children, like the proper manner to perform oral sex. We need someone who has his own symbol for use to adhere to. A man recognized as a man of peace, and had been awarded awards for the future possible actions he might take. We need the campus bull sh*tter.

    Posted by Zelsdorf Ragshaft III

    This is, like, the best thing since Pericles gave the Funeral Oration.

    Really.

    Can it be made into a “Downfall” Parody?

  19. Gerry W. says:

    George B,

    Here lies a problem. I have no problem of federalism or leaving it to the states on social issues. For example, gay marriage and abortion. However, what do we do with free trade and/or globalization? Not that it makes a difference with signed agreements or not. The fact is that we have globalization and we have seen a lot of our manufacturing go overseas. Now, I feel Washington needs to be on top of this. Cities and States cannot compete with 2 to 3 billion cheap laborers. Cities and States are grasping for extension of unemployment benefits, bailouts, and casinos. This effects our whole country. Now a president, may have the right to take our money for war, but then there are those that say the states should deal with their own affairs. Well, in this case of globalization they can’t. And then on top of that, these same people will say we need more religion in government. The republican party can’t have it both ways.

    America has become more ungovernable with more failed ideology. And someone needs to get it together.

  20. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Gerry, see my posts. They are the answer, are they not. We have seen than government regulated free (?) markets fail. Question, what is a government regulated free market? Gerry you should collaborate with Anjin. He and you should be able to come up with the answer. Hint, see Marx.

  21. Gerry W. says:

    What we saw was the failure of the trickle down theory.

  22. JKB says:

    Gerry W. – In 2000, George W. Bush had been a successful 2 term governor of Texas, winning his second term with 69% of the vote. Pretty much anyone would consider that demonstrated ability to govern and legislate even if they disagree with his policies. As James notes, Bush was able to get many bills passed even against bipartisan opposition in Congress. He also faired reasonable well in 2007-08 when the Congress was controlled by the opposition party.

    Obama on the other hand has, so far, left the legislating to the Democratic leaders of Congress.

    anjin-san – The President’s party enjoys a super-majority in both houses, the people are not in revolt, the states are compliant with federal edicts, if the country is ungovernable, what pray tell is the cause if not the ability of those holding the reins of power? My opinion is that the country is decidedly governable but is currently being poorly governed. The current leadership persistently sow fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) both about their abilities and the economic future of the country. Allow FUD to take hold in a country or a group and it will appear to be ungovernable since no one will follow those in which they have waning confidence.

  23. EJM says:

    For eight years the Democrats used all manner of constant attacks on George W. Bush and the Republicans, declared Iraq lost, and polarized the country. Then they put up a sham of a candidate with zero experience and even less understanding of the country, to advance a radical agenda the majority of citizens does not want. Now that it’s imploding, they blame the “system.”

    You have to admire these Taliban who never ever question their ideology even as they commit political suicide.

  24. Gerry W. says:

    JKB,

    Bush had an oil company that went broke and asked the Saudis for help. We were supposed to go after Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan and that got screwed up in Tora Bora. And then he wanted his war with Iraq, never paid for it and never had enough troops. Then he ran deficits all through his time in office. He neglected our country and globalization. Our jobs went overseas, our money went to Iraq, and our country was in neglect. And you cannot run a country like that. He stayed the course and ran the country into the ground.

    All those tax cuts was spent money. That was for the here and now. It was the roaring 20’s and today we are paying the price for that. The country was doomed over 5 years ago, well before the democrats came into congress.

    EJM,

    The Iraq war was lost due to Bush’s ignorance and arrogance. You had the Iraq Study Group, General Petraeus, and others trying to figure out on how to get out of the quagmire. Bush never consulted Bob Gates, James Baker, Brent Scrowcroft, or his father on Iraq and what Bush said is truly amazing, that….that he got his answer from a “higher authority.” So Bush was a born again Christian and he got his answer from God.

    Well that war cost us countless lives, a trillion dollars, the neglect and near loss of Afghanistan, the theory of keeping both Iraq and Iran as equals, and we did not get Osama Bin Laden, and he is in Pakistan, a country with nuclear weapons. Just about the worst outcome out of this whole mess.

  25. The Insurgency says:

    can we use the RICO Act to stop the criminal enterprise known as the Democratic Party, James?

    All the elements of a collusive scheme to defraud on a grand scale are there within the Democratic party in Congress and in the all-hyena Administration of the most hated president
    in American history.

    The Inane One at 1600 Pennsylvania is hated for good reasons: we don’t like criminals in elected office. And the crew at the Capitol: their venality is only exceeded by their hubris.

    I thnk we have a case, what’s your perspective?

  26. Jim says:

    I think this article brings up a very good point. The problem that Congress and the Obama administration is having in getting things past is partially to do with communication. President Obama, Pelosi, and Reid do not communicate with the American people – they lecture them. The consequence is that the people are not vested with their ideas. Ironically, the qualities that most infuriated progressives about President Bush are being replicated now: A attitude of you are with us or against us, intolerance of dissent, a tone deafness and the deep belief that their views are not only correct but are moral imperatives.

    Americans want to be included in these decisions not told by their leaders to sit at the back of the bus. A backlash is inevitable and will take progressives by surprise since these potential decisions the basis of their intellectual paradigm.

  27. An Interested Party says:

    Once nearly 50% of the country pays NO taxes and realizes they can VOTE benefits for themselves at NO cost to themselves, the divide begins.

    Oh really? 50% of the country pays “NO taxes”, including payroll and sales taxes? I’m sure you won’t mind providing some proof to bolster that claim…

    I DO agree the nation is utterly divided though; it’s because the Woodstock generation is now in charge and they’re the most irresponsible, greedy, and ideological generation we’ve ever had.

    Who knew that the president (b. 1961), Nancy Pelosi (b. 1940), and Harry Reid (b. 1939) are all part of the “Woodstock generation” that is supposedly responsible for the great divide in our country…

    [C]an we use the RICO Act to stop the criminal enterprise known as the Democratic Party, James?

    Maybe you could make a few citizen’s arrests…

  28. Raoul says:

    JJ: you overstate Bush success (he certainly was a master in expanding the executive branch w/o Congressional supervision) and the many of the triumphs he had were on the strong defense variety which there is a bipartisan consensus. Your chart is worthless. Any system that requires 300 mill to the Louisiana senator for a procedural vote or large moneys to the AgInd sector is indeed broken. Large majorities want a public option and we are not getting it- I know this a republic not pure democracy- but if the will of the large majority cannot be carried out we have a problem. BTW I argued for banishing the filibuster even when the GOP was in power. Basically each senator is giving itself way too much power (see the current holds). E.g., Homeland Security does not have a chief and the system is not broken? Please.

  29. SteveinCH says:

    I have a very different point of view. The actual problem is not the “somewhat” arcane rules of the Senate but the massive expansion of the role of the Federal government in our society.

    The reason that things seem more polarized is we are increasingly relying on an increasingly distant Federal government to run almost all aspects of our society.

    As long as this is the case, people will be frustrated by the ability of the minority to block their preferred policy initiatives across a wide range of issues. A more limited (in scope) Federal government would produce much less frustration (and by the way, capture much less money).