THE COOLER

One of my favorite quotes from the founding era – which, like any tale of the Founders' wit and wisdom, may be apocryphal – is Washington's explanation to a skeptical Thomas Jefferson about the advantages of a bicameral legislature and specifically of a House designed for rapid action paired with a slow-moving Senate. GW is said to have asked Jefferson, "Why did you set your tea on the table before drinking it?" to which Jefferson said, "To cool it; my throat is not made of brass." Having made the point, Washington told his friend, "So it is with the legislature. The House is where we make our tea and the Senate is where we let it cool so we might drink it." I have repeated this tale to many Intro to American Government classes but I am starting to feel like both George and I are liars. The House is still where we make our tea, but the Senate is now where we send it until one of two outcomes: either 40% of the chamber decides that no one will be having tea or it gets so cold that no one in their right mind would want to drink it anymore.

The current debacle with the President's healthcare legislation should be provoking discussion about the efficacy of our legislative system overall, as it is becoming apparent that as the two parties have polarized the Senate has become an all-or-nothing game of Russian roulette in which the majority either rams legislation through the minority or a coalition of just two out of every five Senators can bring the proceedings of the entire body to a grinding halt. In other words, our government is "broken" not ideologically but institutionally; the current political realities have rendered the Senate's rules, well-intentioned and lofty they may be, ineffectual or worse.

The House is designed to produce legislation rapidly; its two-year terms and simple, majority-based rules reflect its character as an institution designed for efficiency and to reflect trends in public opinion. Public opinion being wrongheaded or dangerous much of the time, the Senate exists to apply the brakes. In other words, let's think about this for a second before we make it law. While the filibuster is not enshrined in the Constitution (and was in fact made practical by a change to the Senate rules in 1806 when the option to "call the question" or move the debate to a vote was allowed to expire) it has been an integral part of Senate practice for more than two centuries. But to what end? Aside from some southern racists' futile attempts to block civil rights legislation and Oregon Senator Wayne Morse's one-man crusade to block the Tidelands Oil act in 1953, the filibuster has been fairly invisible. But in recent years, thanks in no small part to the divisive tactics of the "Class of 1994" Republicans in Congress, the filibuster is now threatened at the drop of a hat. It is to the modern Senate what duels were to the Wild West – theoretically a last resort to redress serious grievances that became, over time, a knee-jerk reaction to any perceived slight among hotheads and drunks.

Our system is broken for two fundamental reasons: the electoral incentives for Senate obstructionism are great and the Democratic Party has no ballsack. The first point means that the less the current Democratic majority is able to accomplish, the more likely it is that voters will put the other party back in power. Gingrich figured this one out in the early 1990s. It is in the party's interest, if not the nation's, to do nothing but obstruct at every step of the way. "Those damn Democrats can't get anything done," voters will eventually conclude. The second point means that Republicans do get things done – usually idiotic, harmful things, but things nonetheless. Their leaders are willing to run through the chamber like madmen clutching a detonator, perfectly willing to destroy the institution and everyone in it if they don't get their way. So the voters drunkenly lurch back and forth between the two parties every couple of elections, trying to choose between the Democrats with the attractive policies or the Republicans with stale, ineffective ideas they will successfully implement.

In this hyperpartisan environment, even 60 Democrats (counting "Independent" Joe Lieberman) is not enough to enact the agenda of a Democratic president. Bush didn't even need 55 Republicans to railroad through his appointees, his agenda, and some very poorly thought-out legislation that in hindsight someone should have read before voting to pass. Saddled with Harry Reid and an egomaniacal "Independent" who gets off on being a necessary evil, this party simply has no idea how to lead – how to be the winners. Maybe they have become the Arizona Cardinals of politics, so used to being doormats that they don't know how to handle success when they suddenly find it. In my opinion, 60 Democrats should be enough to pass a Democratic agenda. Hell, 51 should do it. Yes, the majority in our system will always involve some measure of ideological diversity – "ConservaDems" or "Republicans in name only" – but fundamentally, simply, and crudely…it should not be this fucking hard to pass legislation with a 75-seat House majority and 58-60 Senators. We cannot suffer a system that will require either 51 Republicans or 65 Democrats to pass legislation.

So the Democrats must make a painful choice: they must alter the Senate rules and do away with the filibuster. Yes, this will inevitably mean suffering the consequences in the future when the GOP re-takes the majority. But they give the GOP everything it wants anyway. Name one thing the minority Democrats obstructed: a nomination, a major policy proposal (Social Security privatization was deep-sixed in the GOP caucus before even making it to the floor), a war…anything. If they refuse to use it in the minority, why suffer the GOP use of it when in the majority? Better to take the opportunity to pass some legislation now and accept that the GOP will break it off in the minority Democrats' ass at some point in the future than to accomplish nothing in either scenario. The Senate is for deliberation, not obstruction. It is where legislation is sent to be reconsidered, not locked in a cage and starved to death over a period of weeks.

21 thoughts on “THE COOLER”

  • Kudos on including your Cards into the discussion. Although your analogy does not completely fly, as Zona will likely return to the playoffs this year. I think they are handling success just fine.
    I'm tired of the Dems being such pannywaists also. Shouldn't they be at least slightly vindicative considering the recent treatment they have gotten? You can't blather on about health care reform for years on end and come up impotent. I think at this point in Bush's presidency he already rammed through legislation on public stonings. After all of the shit they got away with, what has Obama gotten through. A little here and there and that's it. I don't understand how the right-wingers are getting as much mileage as they are bashing him. What the Hell has he even done to earn their scorn?

  • Your final paragraph is perfect! And it just points to how incredibly lame the Democratic Party is. Sometimes i think the problem is just that the Democrats, broadly speaking, are not wired for the type of combat necessary for today's politics. They've mistaken Broder for a sage.

  • Please consider submitting this to a magazine for publication. People don't know how to ask the questions this piece answers.

    I would also be honored to go to bat with any editor who tried to alter the sentence, "Our system is broken for two fundamental reasons: the electoral incentives for Senate obstructionism are great and the Democratic Party has no ballsack."

  • Nice idea, but it'll never happen. Because if it did, ineffectual pieces of fucking human offal from shitty states that contain about as many people as my fucking block and should consider themselves lucky to even have running water and roads–like Maine, Nebraska, those fucking Dakota hellholes, etc–would never get their sleazy asses on teevee and never get their hands on a single motherfucking penny of the corporate largesse that they live for.

    The Senate isn't broken because of the filibuster rule. The Senate is broken because of equal representation. These fucking corrupt small state scumbags elected by a couple of slezebag CEOs should be as relevant as the rep from Puerto Rico, and instead they are more powerful than the motherfucking President. Our wonderful founders fucked up with the Senate, and all that Federalist Papers bullshit about the "deliberation" of the Senate was just cover for caving to the demands of slaveowner oligarchs from backwater shithole states. (I'm not saying they didn't need to do this, but let's be honest about what happened.)

  • Excellent break- down, Comrade.
    Reduced to a soundbite: the job of the House is to give the people what they want and that of the Senate is to deny it.

  • displaced Capitalist says:

    But isn't this just another flaw of the two-party system? When Washington was speaking to Jefferson I don't think he envisioned a bicameral system split into two by equally represented parties.

    Forgive me Ed if I can't remember my history well, but wasn't there a movement in the early days to prevent the formation of political parties?

  • The problem is not the filibuster, but the fact that they no longer do a true filibuster. Bring out the cots and have them reading phone books again and see how long they will last. Today they are too fucking lazy and all they do is threaten to filibuster and the other side caves. Doesn't matter who is in power, it works the same way. Make them go to the mattresses!!

    Are you suggesting the "Nuclear Option" like the Republican'ts wanted back in the days of aWol?????????????????????

  • Yes, I am recommending a "nuclear" option.

    The Democratic Party refuses to use the filibuster yet it is regularly used against them, so what's the point? It's an institutional disadvantage.

  • It is in the House where the Tea is brewed, the Senate where it is drunk and on K Street where it is all pissed away. We need a parliamentary system. US society has become too heterogeneous to effectively be governed by two deliberative bodies designed to allow two different puritanical schools (read white) of thought to debate issues that used to be commonly understood by most members. A society governed by representatives who fundamentally do not understand those they represent will fail. Legislative seizures are a precursor to such failure.

  • Without gainsaying any of Ed's or Com Phy's. excellent points, there is another systemic problem, and that is that both parties are owned by big business interests. So nobody represents the people.

    We can't get health care passed because big pharma and ins cos. are jealously protecting their profit margins, and they own Lieberman, to name just one. The last thing any business person wants is fucking competition.

    But we can get multiple, never-ending wars at the the drop of a box cutter. Eisenhower explained it all in 1960.

    We are so fucked.
    JzB

  • Not to rain on the comment parade, but Senate non-confirmation of John Bolton was an effective Democratic filibuster in the previous administration, and not having Harriet Miers sitting on the bench was essentially another. I agree with Kulkuri, the filibuster will never be a last resort unless it inflicts enough pain on the brandisher to keep it so.

  • For what it's worth, Ed, I'd just like to state for the record that I feel better about academia, in general, because you're a part of it. This isn't to say that it's not still full of dipshittery and asshattery at every level, but I find the fact that your involved in teaching politics somewhere genuinely refreshing, to say the least.

  • Forgive me Ed if I can't remember my history well, but wasn't there a movement in the early days to prevent the formation of political parties?

    Yes, there was. Until the 1830s or so, Presidents and other politicians ran as "anti-party". There were even anti-party political parties, if that makes any sense. I guess the residue of this history is the idea that being "partisan" is a bad thing.

    Gerald Leonard's "The Invention of Party Politics: Federalism, Popular Sovereignty, and Constitutional Development in Jacksonian Illinois" is a fascinating account of this historical development.

  • The Democrats should take note of Tom Delay's playbook and open a can of 'whupass'. LET the Republicans filibuster and show America in no uncertain terms how obstructionist they are.

    BTW, Lieberman's home state, Connecticut, HAS a 'public option'. It's called Charter Oaks. 3 plans to choose from.

    Charter Oak – Connecticut's 'Public Option'

    Unfortunately, it is also home to a gob of insurance companies. Lieberman should lose his committee chairmanships. Screw him. After campaigning for McCain he should be sent to the wilderness.

    Ed, love your blog. Found it Googling to see how many idiots bought Sarah Palin's book and ran across your hilarious review of it.

  • jazzbumpa states: "both parties are owned by big business interests. So nobody represents the people.

    We can't get health care passed because big pharma and ins cos. are jealously protecting their profit margins, and they own Lieberman, to name just one. The last thing any business person wants is fucking competition.

    But we can get multiple, never-ending wars at the the drop of a box cutter. Eisenhower explained it all in 1960."

    This is the single truest statement in here. We can talk all about 2 parties and who betrayed who until the whiskey runs out, but in the end it's just idle chatter to keep our frightened eyes from the reality of The United Corporations of America. They always have – and always will – profit from any scenario we can or can't vote for; health care, wars, pharma, energy, you name it. The governing bodies are only a smokescreen to keep us under the impression that we have "some" kind of voter-control over things in order to keep us from fomenting total anarchy. But I'd imagine that, too, is on it's way eventually.

    Wow, I'm such a bowl of sunshine today!

  • In my opinion, 60 Democrats should be enough to pass a Democratic agenda.

    Agreed. It's just too bad, though, that there are only 58 Democrats in the Senate. How do people keep getting this wrong? For that matter, it was 57 up until September when Kirk was sworn in to replace Kennedy.

    Do you think, just maybe, that the capacity for Senate democrats to pass the legislation they "want" to pass is being overstated the same way the number of Democrats in the Senate is?

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