Legislative Impasse: Country Becoming Harder to Govern

That there is nothing new under the sun is a kind of historical creed for those who look to the past. But the lessons of history should always act to illuminate human experience, not inhibit or constrain it. “If you spend a lot of time thinking about the political past,” Jon Meacham wrote, “you tend to see the events of the present time differently than you do if you are consumed by the passions of the hour.”

The danger with this kind of thinking is that the problems of the present become nothing more than the sum total of the past manifestations, which blind us to the vicissitude of the shifting political landscape. The past becomes a reciprocating morality play, in which the lessons from history are equally tailored to all of our present troubles of congressional gridlock and legislative failure. It is true, as Meacham asserts that the problem of governance is so historically ubiquitous that it is as old as the nation itself. But sometimes the “rhetoric of apocalypticism” that Meacham would shy away from does occasionally come true.

I do not mean to accuse Meacham of propagating this conflation of the past into a kind of flat land of political history. However, the past will not always define the present. Perhaps we can apply the past broadly, but these are unique circumstances that deserve unique answers.

The fact is that obstruction is on a record pace. Ezra Klein postulates that if cloture votes (a motion to end debate) continue on their present course and reach 300 by the end of the year, then the 2007-2010 total would equal all of the cloture votes seen in the period between 1919 and 1984. It is such a habit now that one bill which passed 95-5 was also filibustered.

This alone does not mean that the Senate is reaching a state of systematic paralysis, arrested and unable to perform even its most basic functions, but consider the fact that the government can add billions of dollars to the deficit via Medicare Part D but is straining against all practical limitations just to pass a sensible health care reform bill that has the potential to dramatically reduce the deficit over the coming decades, staving off whatever deficit induced wasteland that critics of the bill claim will come to pass. The inability to make the necessary changes is more than simply a state of mind. If this country is indeed more polarized than ever, then the government itself must change to deal with this new reality.

“Power is constantly sought through the use of means which render its effective use, once acquired, impossible,” Senator Evan Bayh said in a recent NY Times editorial. And what is the point of power if the eventual resolution is to cede that power back again once governance proves ineffective? The minority party, whether it is Democrats or Republicans, is never going to stop this active resistance to legislation as long as it produces the intended results of sweeping the majority power clean out of office every election cycle. This is the height of political cynicism in an age of profound political cynicism.

The short-sighted behavior – occurring throughout the most pivotal time when American must adapt in order to sustain – flouts transparency, which is necessary for a working government. The people should not be blunted from the full impact of legislation. If an idea is to fail, then let it fail on its own merits and not because compromises have made its effects esoteric and elusive.

Perhaps it can be argued that barriers should be high since far-reaching changes are difficult to overturn, but governments like the one in California are no better for it. A system that is quickly becoming congested needs to be nimble and adaptable and ready to deal with change, no matter which party is in office. Ezra Klein has been making the suggestion that we should lower the votes necessary to break the filibuster from 60 to 55, which is a healthy majority that doesn’t require a rare super majority, and allow the change to take effect several years from now so that the political makeup of the government is in question. Maybe if total partisanship was no longer needed to pass legislation, then obstruction would fall out of favor. It would make a good fight for Evan Bayh, if he would stick around and not retire. But even the effort to end such extreme polarization is itself polarizing.