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Avoiding the Elephant in the Senate

photo: David Blackwell via Flickr

Evan Bayh’s sorrowful retirement speech, and its claim that the Senate “is not working” and is “dysfunctional,” could have been a wake-up call about the difficulties of a de facto super-majority process grafted onto what amounts to a Parliamentary culture. But instead, filtered through the Village’s collective auditory canal, Bayh’s frustration becomes not about the filibuster, but about the need for wise centrism and bipartisanship for bipartisanship’s sake. Chris Matthews just spent 15 minutes on the “broken Senate,” bringing on the first two former Senators he could coax out of his green room (for accuracy, John Breaux and William Cohen), and the word “filibuster” or “super-majority” somehow never entered the discussion. Instead it was a conversation about how to punch the “far left” repeatedly in the face, and to an exceedingly lesser extent the far right. Apparently Bayh was frustrated by a lack of such pummeling, so he took off.

Bayh is an anomaly of sorts; he really grew to dislike the influence of liberal activists on his Senate colleagues. To him, these activists increased the cost of doing business. Reaching out to the other side became more risky than rallying around an ideological pole, even though that rallying around contributed to stasis. When it became clear to Bayh that the White House wasn’t going to play his game — wasn’t going to sell out liberals at every turn — Bayh decided he had had enough.

Not only does this show Bayh’s essential nature, but it’s fundamentally incorrect. Democrats had their best chance to deliver on campaign promises when they held 60 votes from September to January, and they just didn’t do much with the power. Expecting Republicans, even those blessed “moderates,” to join in on any initiative from Democrats at this stage is just a sucker’s bet. Far from a radical fringe agenda, any collective action that just the Democratic caucus would look upon favorably could have passed in that window. And by and large, practically nothing did.

Matthew Yglesias spells out this radical, crazed, DFH agenda, which looks a lot like… everything that the Democrats ran on in 2008:

One annoying recurring feature of talk about the present political situation is the presumption on the part of the centrist members of congress who’ve been driving the legislative agenda that the left has, in fact, been driving the legislative agenda. It’s worth reviewing the mainstream liberal policy agenda for the 111th Senate:

• A $1.2 trillion stimulus.
• The forcible breakup of large banks.
• Universal health care with a public option linked to Medicare rates.
• An economy-wide cap on carbon emissions, with the permits auctioned.
• Repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
• A path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
• An exit strategy from Afghanistan.
• An end to special exemption of military spending from fiscal discipline.
• An independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency.
• The Employee Free Choice Act.

As Yglesias notes, not only has none of this happened, but by and large most of it wasn’t even pushed for in any substantive way. Certainly the Administration wasn’t jamming the majority of this down anyone’s throat, and the Democratic leadership was extremely, to a fault, solicitous of concessions, one after another, on all of this. Bayh wasn’t frustrated by the lack of passage of the above agenda; he was frustrated by the inability to pass some separate agenda, which he preferred and which included tax cuts for billionaires and social spending cuts for the poor. The only reason the above agenda couldn’t pass was because Bayh, and people like him, wouldn’t allow it, and the Senate’s particular rules made Bayh and his compatriots relevant, rather than part of a majoritarian body.

You cannot talk credibly about a “broken Senate” unless you talk about the essential nature of the problem, and it’s not because people disagree about stuff. I think disagreement is a general state of being since the beginning of time. Using words like “gridlock” and “dysfunction” without pointing to the actual means by which the chamber stays gridlocked and dysfunctional is just the usual hippie-punching, using a few different words.

UPDATE: Bob Corker of Tennessee basically offered the same points on dysfunction without noting the means for it. He says that people just don’t get along with one another in the Senate anymore. I don’t think for a second that members of the Senate believe that – it’s something nice to say that people respond to. The idea that parties would change their strategies if they just sat down to coffee with someone from the other side every once in a while flies in the face of almost everything we know about institutions of this type. Republicans obstruct because it works for them. When it stops working for them, it’ll stop. Democrats aren’t passing anything because too many of their members really don’t want to pass anything, at least not anything that could be remotely considered “Democratic.” If those members left, suddenly Democrats would be a more cohesive entity.

CommunityThe Bullpen

Avoiding The Elephant In The Senate

Evan Bayh’s sorrowful retirement speech, and its claim that the Senate “is not working” and is “dysfunctional,” could have been a wake-up call about the difficulties of a de facto super-majority process grafted onto what amounts to a Parliamentary culture. But instead, filtered through the Village’s collective auditory canal, Bayh’s frustration becomes not about the filibuster, but about the need for wise centrism and bipartisanship for bipartisanship’s sake. Chris Matthews just spent 15 minutes on the “broken Senate,” bringing on the first two former Senators he could coax out of his green room (for accuracy, John Breaux and William Cohen), and the word “filibuster” or “super-majority” somehow never entered the discussion. Instead it was a conversation about how to punch the “far left” repeatedly in the face, and to an exceedingly lesser extent the far right. Apparently Bayh was frustrated by a lack of such pummeling, so he took off.

Bayh is an anomaly of sorts; he really grew to dislike the influence of liberal activists on his Senate colleagues. To him, these activists increased the cost of doing business. Reaching out to the other side became more risky than rallying around an ideological pole, even though that rallying around contributed to stasis. When it became clear to Bayh that the White House wasn’t going to play his game — wasn’t going to sell out liberals at every turn — Bayh decided he had had enough.

Not only does this show Bayh’s essential nature, but it’s fundamentally incorrect. Democrats had their best chance to deliver on campaign promises when they held 60 votes from September to January, and they just didn’t do much with the power. Expecting Republicans, even those blessed “moderates,” to join in on any initiative from Democrats at this stage is just a sucker’s bet. Far from a radical fringe agenda, any collective action that just the Democratic caucus would look upon favorably could have passed in that window. And by and large, practically nothing did.

Matthew Yglesias spells out this radical, crazed, DFH agenda, which looks a lot like… everything that the Democrats ran on in 2008:

One annoying recurring feature of talk about the present political situation is the presumption on the part of the centrist members of congress who’ve been driving the legislative agenda that the left has, in fact, been driving the legislative agenda. It’s worth reviewing the mainstream liberal policy agenda for the 111th Senate:

• A $1.2 trillion stimulus.
• The forcible breakup of large banks.
• Universal health care with a public option linked to Medicare rates.
• An economy-wide cap on carbon emissions, with the permits auctioned.
• Repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
• A path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
• An exit strategy from Afghanistan.
• An end to special exemption of military spending from fiscal discipline.
• An independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency.
• The Employee Free Choice Act.

As Yglesias notes, not only has none of this happened, but by and large most of it wasn’t even pushed for in any substantive way. Certainly the Administration wasn’t jamming the majority of this down anyone’s throat, and the Democratic leadership was extremely, to a fault, solicitous of concessions, one after another, on all of this. Bayh wasn’t frustrated by the lack of passage of the above agenda; he was frustrated by the inability to pass some separate agenda, which he preferred and which included tax cuts for billionaires and social spending cuts for the poor. The only reason the above agenda couldn’t pass was because Bayh, and people like him, wouldn’t allow it, and the Senate’s particular rules made Bayh and his compatriots relevant, rather than part of a majoritarian body.

You cannot talk credibly about a “broken Senate” unless you talk about the essential nature of the problem, and it’s not because people disagree about stuff. I think disagreement is a general state of being since the beginning of time. Using words like “gridlock” and “dysfunction” without pointing to the actual means by which the chamber stays gridlocked and dysfunctional is just the usual hippie-punching, using a few different words.

UPDATE: Bob Corker of Tennessee basically offered the same points on dysfunction without noting the means for it. He says that people just don’t get along with one another in the Senate anymore. I don’t think for a second that members of the Senate believe that – it’s something nice to say that people respond to. The idea that parties would change their strategies if they just sat down to coffee with someone from the other side every once in a while flies in the face of almost everything we know about institutions of this type. Republicans obstruct because it works for them. When it stops working for them, it’ll stop. Democrats aren’t passing anything because too many of their members really don’t want to pass anything, at least not anything that could be remotely considered “Democratic.” If those members left, suddenly Democrats would be a more cohesive entity.

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David Dayen

David Dayen