NORMS

Posted in Rants on September 28th, 2011 by Ed

Although we're not shy about calling him a d-bag when he deserves it, which is often, David Frum gets credit where credit is due for being one of the few "Hey wait a minute, this party used to have some non-insane people" Republicans with a high media profile. This weekend, believe it or not, he wrote what may be the best commentary yet on the breakdown of the governing process in Washington over the last few years. His point is simple: Congress has become a clusterfuck because its informal behavioral norms have broken down.

He offers a few useful examples. First, we are all familiar with the explosion in the number of filibusters over the past decade. The rules of the chamber have remained constant; what has changed is that the stigma of using a filibuster has evaporated. For most of its history, to filibuster something in the Senate was widely seen as, for lack of a better term, a dick move. This perception was strengthened when one of its rare uses was to block civil rights legislation in the post-War period. A member who suggested filibustering every goddamn thing that appears on the Senate agenda would have been dealt with harshly by A) the leadership, who would deny him benefits like prime committee assignments, and B) other members, who would reinforce the social norms of the chamber to make it clear that he is out of line. Today neither happens. The member who proposes filibustering everything, at least on the Republican side, is right in line with his colleagues. The leadership will probably see him as a rising star.

Hold on nominations are another former taboo that has become commonplace. Senate Republicans have taken to blocking nominations just for the hell of blocking nominations, as did Democrats (in much smaller numbers) during the Bush years. Holds have gone from a "Really? Are you serious?" maneuver to standard operating procedure in just a few years. Frum offers similar examples, like the refusal of the current House leadership to schedule votes:

Under the old rules, there were certain things that political parties did not do — even though theoretically they could. If one party controlled the Senate and another party controlled the presidency, the Senate party did not reject all the president's nominees. The party that controlled the House did not refuse to schedule votes on the president's budgets. Individual senators did not use secret holds to sway national policy. The filibuster was reserved for rare circumstances — not as a routine 60-vote requirement on every Senate vote.

It's incredible to look back now on how the Reagan tax cut passed the Democratic House in 1981. The Democratic House leaderships could have refused to schedule votes on Reagan's tax plans. Instead, they not only allowed the tax plan to proceed — but they allowed 48 of 243 Democrats to break ranks on the key procedural vote without negative consequences to their careers in the Democratic party.

This reminds me of a good quote from then-Senator Joe Biden talking in 2005 about his experience with judicial appointments during the Reagan years:

"Let me tell you how we did it in the Reagan Administration," Biden, who chaired the Judiciary Committee for several of those years, said. "They came to me and told me whom they were going to nominate, and I'd say, 'You're going to have a problem with this one or that one'-maybe a dozen out of the hundreds of judges that Reagan appointed. And I'd say, 'If you want to push that guy, all the others will wait in line behind him.' And the problems generally were removed. We did business that way for years, and it worked. Now this crowd wants to shove everything down our throats. They don't pull back on anybody. So we escalated with the filibusters. And they escalate with the nuclear option."

Frum says little about two important components of the question: why things have changed or what can be done about it. I have no persuasive answer to the second question except that at some point the nation will face a crisis severe enough to enforce a spirit of cooperation in Congress. As for the first part, the answer is clear – and this is not partisan, but objective based on the former Speaker's own account of his governing philosophy: things changed in 1994 and the vast majority of what we must live with today is Newt Gingrich's doing. He openly campaigned for the speakership on the idea that the GOP would cease to be a "go along, get along" party and would start opposing the Democrats wherever possible. It took only a few sessions of Congress for "wherever possible" to mutate into "on every single bill, vote, or issue in Congress."

We are living, for better or worse (hint: it's worse), in Newt Gingrich's America. There may be some merit to the argument that politics become more contentious when economic times are tough. Nonetheless, the current dysfunction in Congress is largely a direct result of the "vision" of Republican upstarts who, in the late 1980s, wanted to break the party out of its accommodating mindset and into the role of an aggressive opposition party. The problem is, our system is not a parliamentary one wherein the majority has so many advantages that the minority cannot be faulted for using chicanery in an effort to stop them. Ours is a system that relies on cooperation, at least on the most basic level. We do not need to agree on policy, but Congress must be able to agree on basics – like, "We will schedule votes on stuff, and then vote on it" – or else it will not work at all.

In a half-assed attempt at a counterpoint, Bill Bennett argues, as many duplicitous defenders of Republican obstructionism do, that this is somehow what the Founders intended. He points out that government was intended to move slowly and be deliberative. It's a shame no one can take the time to point out to Bennett the difference between a slow, deliberative legislative process and someone walking up to the gears with a wrench, his colleagues cheering him on as he grinds the process to a complete halt for no useful reason.