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The Politics of Obstruction II

Thursday, July 05, 2007
Have you noticed something funny? When the Republicans were in the majority in the Senate, even when it was a modest 51-49 majority, there were still able to pass stuff. The Democrats would filibuster some ridiculous right-wing proposal, but the Republicans would peel off enough Democrats to invoke cloture and pass the thing anyway. But now that Democrats are in the majority, everything we propose gets filibustered and we can't seem to break any of them.

One could argue that there were lots of Democrats from Red States that had to protect themselves politically, but aren't there a lot of vulnerable Republican Blue-Staters too? One could also argue that the national political climate made it very hard to challenge President Bush in 2001-2005. But have you looked at the recent opinion polling? Bush is under 30% in the polls! The man's a walking political black hole: anything that gets near him will get sucked up and crushed into sub-particles. Senators should be avoiding a high presidential support rating like the plague. Or perhaps one could argue that the Republicans were proposing popular policies like tax cuts. But there were proposing a lot of unpopular things too, like subsidies for oil companies, weren't they? And since when are tax cuts more popular than the minimum wage? Never, that's when!

Perhaps if the filibuster worked evenly on both sides, things would be okay. There would be sufficient political stalemate that eventually both sides would de-escalate and try to pass something. But what we have been experiencing is that when Republicans are in the majority, they pass whatever they like even with tiny minorities, and when the Democrats are in the majority they get nothing. Doesn't sound exactly fair, does it?

I would propose that the Republican Party is now an old-style urban political machine writ large. The communications, activist, and fundraising structure is now sufficiently centralized that Republican officeholders are pretty much forced to tow the party line: even when it hurts them politically. Democrats remain a pretty defuse group dominated by their own elected officials, however, and thus suffer a severe collective action problem: there's a big incentive for individual defections. Add to that the conservative media tilt (Democratic filibusters are "obstructionist", Republican filibusters are "conviction"), and you have a recipe for a profoundly skewed legislative process.

Perhaps if we get a Democratic President in 2008, he/she will be able to apply enough public pressure on Republicans to pass legislation. Or maybe we'll knock off another 5 incumbents and terrify them into going along. But what happens if we experienced another 1993-94, when a Republican minority blocks every piece of legislation and we get the blame for ineffectiveness? You can see something similar at work already!

The kernel of our problem, I'm coming to believe, is the nature of public discussion in this country. The beltway press is so corrupt that it's almost impossible to get a fair shake. Of course we should build a rival infrastructure, although I'm leery of imitating the Republicans too closely (they are the bad guys, after all). And I think we should spend more time than we have figuring out a way to break up the hostile agglomeration of power that's developed (public financing of campaigns? breaking up media monopolies?). But I'm not entirely certain how to overcome an enemy whose persistent defiance of public opinion has thus far come with no penalty. I'm also not clear as to how to force some substance into this mockery of a discussion.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 3:41 PM
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