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.

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27 Responses to “NORMS”

  1. Brian Says:

    "Back in 1986, Democratic leaders quashed those in their party who wished to try impeach Ronald Reagan over Iran-Contra."
    I agree that the article is good, but Frum just HAD to be a d-bag about something. I mean, if he thinks quashing an investigation into an incredibly brazen crime is an example of government "working," then something something something I'm really too tired to be trying to be clever.

  2. A.B.A.B.D. Says:

    How nice that Billy Boy was able to pull himself away from the casino long enough to pen a bunch of self-serving bullshit. In the alternate universe in which his own party was in power, I have no doubt that he'd treat a similar op-ed piece written by his political opponents as "the tyranny of the minority thwarting the will of the people."

    Given all of his well-documented bad habits, I keep hoping that he'll succumb to them–preferably quickly, so that the ballooning entitlements he's always complaining about won't be wasted on his ever-ballooning corpus. With our luck, though, we'll probably have to listen to his self-righteous crap for another 20 years while he sucks on the teat of Medicare and Social Security to his last, wheezing, gasping breath.

  3. Middle Seaman Says:

    Newt was knocked out by Clinton and had to resign his position. Clinton, though, was able to overcome Republican opposition many times. Republican boldness increased proportionally with Democratic deterioration. The Democrats started to fall apart under Reagan whom they feared.

    During Clinton, many Democrats, especially non congressional leaders and faux progressives, started to develop CDS, Clinton Derangement Syndrome. CDS brought major league hate to the Democrats. The Democratic primaries in 2008 ran on CDS fuel and were as mean and as rational as the Tea Party.

    CDS and later the poisoned Teas have together brought the country to an unruly place. Once the dysfunctional Bush the 3rd, known better as Obama, was elected, we had the foundation for street gangs running the country.

  4. Patrick Says:

    I find it hard to believe that the founding fathers intended that congress deliberate for full presidential terms; never filling positions at all for fear of insufficient deliberation.

  5. Basilisc Says:

    Good point about Gingrich, but this guy got there first:

  6. bjk Says:

    So CNN has Ali Velshi (graduate of Toronto public high school) and David Frum (graduate of Toronto private high school) talking about American politics. In a nation of over 300 million people, they couldn't find two people who weren't Canadian?

  7. c u n d gulag Says:

    "The results of these changes are breaking the American political system — destroying public confidence in the U.S. government — and paralyzing the U.S. economic policy…"

    Uhm, Mr. Frum, that's a Republicans feature, NOT a bug!

    Todays Repulicans are a cross between nihilists and anarchists.

    Party over country!


  8. Da Moose Says:

    Let's be honest. Newt Gingrich's congress is just another way of saying the Confederacy. We've been in the middle of slow motion Confederate counter revolution since the Civil Rights Movement. The only solution is taking up the cessation notion again. Next time some fool like Perry proposes cessation, I see no reason to not take him up on it.

  9. Nan Says:

    It wasn't only the unspoken norms that changed regarding filibusters; it was the written rules. Prior to some fairly recent (last couple of decades) date I can't remember at the moment, if a Senator wanted to filibuster, he or she had to actually filibuster: sit there and run his or her mouth in the Senate chamber until his or her bladder burst or a like-minded colleague could step in to continue the delaying tactics. Now all they have to do is say, "We're going to filibuster," and they're treated as though they actually did. The filibuster would be invoked far less often if they still had to really sit there reading the phone book into the Congressional Record instead of just fantasizing about it.

  10. J. Dryden Says:

    The Founding Fathers had a Senate of 24 or so, a House of 60-ish (the numbers jump around a bit over the course of that first session.) Not the most numerically relevant point of comparison to the current Legislative Branch. And even on issues on which both sides were completely intractable: states' debt relief, military actions, and, oh yeah, that whole slavery thing, there was still a straightforward process: both sides would stand up and talk until they'd said everything they needed to say, then vote.

    Of course, these were all men who had read Cicero, and who believed that during debates, there was nothing shameful about listening carefully to your opponent's argument, and then changing your mind if he had the better case. (There were of course ideologues, but their contemporaries regarded them as assholes.) All was not rosy and civilized, but people still bothered to listen to each other, and respond with a substantial rebuttal of what they'd heard, rather than yell "Nuh-uh" and then hit buzzwords like "class warfare."

    We have met the barbarians and they are us.

  11. Elder Futhark Says:

    The Founding Fathers had a nation of shit-covered illiterates and slack-jawed meatslappers to deal with. Generously, enthusiastically shit-covered. In short, barbarians. Barbarians that thought nothing of skinning people alive and thought setting cats on fire was fucking funny as hell.

  12. Chicagojon Says:

    I like where this is going – especially in the context of yesterday's Obama article.

    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.
    Or maybe what can be done about it is to have leadership and common sense insisting on negotiation and compromise come from the Executive branch. This is what I believe is Obama's core value and goal — he believes that democracy can work and that the government can change course without a crisis severe enough to enforce a spirit of cooperation in Congress.

    I hope he's right, too, because if the meltdown of the global economy (whatever that means…it was just another bubble/burst) and a global war on terrorism can't unite Congress I think we're pretty much just waiting for an alien incursion (no, not you Mexico — I mean extra-terrestrial)

  13. Chicagojon Says:

    @J. Dryden
    Of course, these were all men who had read Cicero, and who believed that during debates, there was nothing shameful about listening carefully to your opponent's argument, and then changing your mind if he had the better case.
    All was not rosy and civilized, but people still bothered to listen to each other, and respond with a substantial rebuttal of what they'd heard, rather than yell "Nuh-uh" and then hit buzzwords like "class warfare."
    This is simply not true. Arguments between loyalists and separatists were clearly battles of buzzwords and nuh-uh/yeah-huh. Ditto to slavery, immigration, Imperialism/pacifism, etc. etc. The difference IMO is that we look back on those accounts through rosy glasses of a better age of wisdom and read flowing words of some of the beter-spoken debaters than the words of the average congress-asshat. It's like reading US Govt history through old G&T posts instead of The simple reality is that congress back in the day didn't matter all that much to the people whom they represented. They didn't meet that often, they didn't have much money to spend (and the vast majority agreed that the federal government should be as small as possible), & while they were sent as representatives and "educated" at the end of the day the average american didn't give a rats ass because they were too busy trying to stay alive and deal with their own lives and problems. In modern times we have been convinced that government is IMPORTANT(TM) and in doing so they've made their every action seem important. Most of what they do isn't important…but easier access to the goings on in Washington and especially crappy fair-and-balanced TV analysis has put them in a position of power that the first generations of representatives could only dream of.

    Oh, and the 'ideologues' of the day that their contemporaries regarded as assholes — I would argue that among the first of these were Jefferson and John Adams. Surely Jefferson counts as an ideologue that (many) of his contemporaries regarded as an asshole.

  14. Chicagojon Says:

    Last bit:

    It was truly a sad day for democracy when having an independent judiciary was added to the broken list with the death of Chief Justice Rehnquist and the installation of Chief Jackass Roberts. It's one thing for Newt Gingrich to fuck things up — at least we can vote out the Newts and keep new Newts out — but the change in tone in the SCOTUS and the power of deciding which cases to hear being in Roberts' hands is going to be very hard to change in the next 20+ years even if there are magical nominations of judges who don't clearly fall along the current 5-4 ideologies.

    “It is not often in the law that so few have so quickly changed so much”
    Justice Stephen G. Breyer, in the principal dissenting opinion of Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1

  15. Phoinix Says:

    And what happens in a nation when one half of the political population decides their opposition isn't just misguided, but illegitimate? In the midst of an economic depression?

    Granting that my political science research is all in the international side of the discipline, this looks like a recipe for political violence to me. I certainly won't discount the possibility of economic downturn, crisis, etc causing people to abandon one of the parties or the eliminationist ideology. But if this were another country, I'd be putting the political violence, if not civil war, probabilities pretty high.

  16. J. Dryden Says:

    @ Chicagojon: First of all, John Adams *was* an asshole, and by his own proud admission. This meant that he accomplished both a great deal in certain situations while creating clusterfucks in others. Assholes very much have their time and place–and when, as in the 2nd Continental Congress, there only one big issue for which the answer is either all-in Yea or all-out Nay, the asshole can shine like a star. But even there I'd argue that my point is still largely valid, since most of the members of that Congress went to Philadelphia resistant to the idea of revolution, but the rhetoric of Adams, Jefferson, Franklin et al. won them over. Because they listened.

    As for the "yuh-huh/nuh-uh" buzzwords of debates, I disagree. Tempers and passions ran high, absolutely. But the leading voices of Federalism and Republicanism demanded of themselves that their arguments be rational, lucid, and thorough. The fact that they didn't have to answer to their constituents was part of this reason–they weren't playing to the cameras, but to each other, in a realm in which intellectual argument still had significance and practical outcome. And most of these dialogues were still too new for easy coding.

    Granted, there was short hand used–four hours on your feet *will* prompt a little rhetorical elision–but it wasn't merely veiled racism when Southern representatives urged Republicanism–it was a genuine belief in the superiority of that form of government *and* the selfish desire to hold onto their slaves. Neither ideology contradicts the other. (Well, once you get past the whole problem of "Africans and their descendants are people." Which admittedly *does* demand a ludicrous amount of casuistry.)

    Finally, I agree that the independent judiciary's demise is greatly to be mourned, but I'd place it back a bit further, with Bush v. Gore as the flashpoint. (Or flatline.) Precedent (and, indeed, law) be damned, the majority wanted Bush to win, and voted solely to achieve this end. (And then added in a footnote to the ruling that this was a one-time-only deal–essentially making perfectly clear that this was not about the law, or the fairness of elections, this was about preferring one candidate to another. And we don't want to set a precedent because, hey, next time, we might want to vote the other way…)

  17. Tim Says:

    To add to J. Dryden's point, which I think is at least on it's premise valid, is the experience of post-rev Virginia.

    Most people think that the sides on slavery were simply drawn and stayed that way. In reality, slave owners (specifically, St. George Tucker) promoted a plan for gradual emancipation, and many in the elite felt this was a good solution that lived up to the promise of the revolution (they were deeply uncomfortable with the thought that the rhetoric of freedom was just as applicable to slaves) and did not deny anyone of their current property.

    Ultimately, the resolution in Virginia and similar ones in many other states failed, but it was discussed in much different terms right after the revolution than it was toward the civil war.

    Thus to say that there were two ideologically opposing sides (summarized as yes and no) is to fundamentally misunderstand the situation.

  18. JazzBumpa Says:

    There may be some merit to the argument that politics become more contentious when economic times are tough.

    There may also be some merit to the argument that economic times are tough when
    politics become more contentious.

    Just sayin' . . .


  19. OliverWendelHolmslice Says:

    "There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious

  20. OliverWendelHolmslice Says:

    …"You must throw yourself upon the gears and the leavers, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people that run it, to the people who own it, that unless the wealthy get to keep their tax breaks and continue to avoid sharing in our common burden, the machine will be prevented from working at all!"

    Doesn't really sound the same somehow…

  21. Xynzee Says:

    Some how holding the White House must have addled the GOP brain, it was if they felt it was to be there's inperpetuity from then on. The general response both on the street and in Congress always that Clinton was an usurper and was treated as such. Seriously, the Lewinsky thing for an impeachment?
    I can't find the reference, but I remember reading at the time how a GOP member (I think it was Helmes) stated, "It's just that *your* President doesn't mean that much to us." (emphs. mine)

    That statement combined with bumper stickers at the time, captured the attitude towards the legitimacy of a Dem in the White House, and it's the same w Obama. It's as if the Office of President no longer commands respect (though Shrub's antics proved that, but he was still POTUS).

    @Middle: Say wha'? Closer to Carter-II, both Bushes managed to accomplish something even if it was to blow the crap out of a desert.

  22. JSB Says:

    Frum makes some good points. Although I think the subtext is suggesting to any members of the investor class who may have some vestigial desire to invest in the US, to just give up. Divest yourselves of the whole lot; The US economy and the dearly bought politicians who they thought would be good proxies.

  23. bb in GA Says:

    And for this effort, your damn Senate DEMOCRATS have still (how many weeks in?) not come up with a sponsor for Mr Obama's ~$450 billion jobs bill.

    But it is those #@!%^' Rs that are your problem…


  24. Tehanu Says:

    Finally, I agree that the independent judiciary's demise is greatly to be mourned, but I'd place it back a bit further, with Bush v. Gore as the flashpoint. (Or flatline.) Precedent (and, indeed, law) be damned, the majority wanted Bush to win, and voted solely to achieve this end.

    Too right. In a sane country this would have been acknowledged as a judicial coup d'etat and the justices who made the five Yea votes would have been hanged as traitors. Well, maybe sanity will return at some point; a girl can dream….