Friday, July 29, 2011

Worst. Congress. Ever.

Norm Ornstein of Foreign Policy magazine argues that this is most dysfunctional Congress he's ever seen. The magazine then asks three other experts if they agree.

They all do.

All these experts are of course right about partisanship and the filibuster and teabaggers refusing to govern, but I think we're also seeing something else at work.

We're discovering just how lawless and poorly designed the Madisonian system really is.

For all the rules and regulations in the Constitution about how each branch should conduct its work and what its powers are, the government as designed by the Constitution is easily, and utterly, subverted by even a relatively small opposition. Democratic government in the United States only functions via an elaborate system of gentlemen's agreements not to take full advantage of numerous minor rules that can be used to game the entire system. Until recently, for instance, there was a gentlemen's agreement that the minority party wouldn't filibuster legislation except in extreme circumstances, and that the President would be given broad latitude to appoint judges as he sees fit, and even broader latitude to staff his cabinet. Similarly, there were gentlemen's agreements that the minority can make some political hay out of the debt ceiling, but they wouldn't take the nation's credit rating hostage to extort Democrats into enacting the entire Republican agenda.

Once those agreements are broken, however, they are broken forever, and the government no longer functions. Consider: between this debt ceiling fight, the budget fight after that, the next debt ceiling fight in six months, and the 2012 budget, the Republican Speaker of the House can crowd out the entire remainder of the President's term just holding the country hostage over and over again. If the president wins re-election, he can do the same to Obama's entire second term, denying the President the opportunity to pass any part of his agenda. And the Speaker can do this standing alone; his party controls neither the White House nor the Senate. Not only can the Speaker do it, but 40 rabid members of the majority caucus who believe the government should be nothing more than a Washington tourist bureau with a massive standing army can drive the government to default just so they can watch it burn.

Nor are the Speaker or the teabagger saboteurs even in the strongest position in government. Consider that in the current Senate, being the minority party means your legislation needs 50 votes to pass, while being the ruling party means your legislation requires 60. More to the point, a single senator can put a hold on virtually any vote, preventing it from coming to a floor indefinitely.

Unlike in the House, the Senate can also prevent the White House from even being properly staffed. A single senator can stall dozens of the president's appointees for entire sessions, and then by himself can also prevent the President from using a recess appointment to bring them into the government after the session is over. Last time I checked, the Fed chairman still, in mid-2011, lacks sufficient staff to properly do his work because Mitch McConnell has decided it's politically expedient for the Republicans to have a paralytic Fed through 2012.

It's amazing to think back to 2010, when Democrats held the presidency, a 31 seat majority in the House, and 60 Senators, and was unable to pass an individual mandate that Republicans supported as recently as 2008 without resorting to budget reconciliation. They couldn't pass a totally uncontroversial nuclear arms treaty or the hugely popular repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell without conceding a massive tax cut for the rich, and they couldn't pass the DREAM Act even with that concession.

No comments: