Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Another thing to keep in mind when thinking about the prospects of Senate reform is that there's no reason to believe that the current situation is any sort of stable, long-term solution.  I've talked about this before, but it's worth recapping.

Think of it this way.  Through the 1960s, filibusters were relatively rare, and focused on the most important legislation..  What followed was an extended period, 1969-2002, in which two things happened: filibusters became more common, but also divided government was the norm.  Through that era, we only had single party control of the White House, the House, and the Senate during Jimmy Carter's term, during the first Congress that served with Bill Clinton, and for a few months of George W. Bush's first term.  That's about seven years out of over thirty years.  It's enough that for those who have observed politics over the long term, divided government -- in which parties had to compromise to get anything done -- was normal. 

Indeed, and this is more speculative than anything else, I suspect that the legacy of divided government may have a lot more to do with elite expectations of bipartisanship than hazy memories of life under President Eisenhower, Speaker Rayburn, and Majority Leader Johnson -- divided government, but with ideologically diverse parties.  I suppose David Broder (b. 1929)  remembers that, but even Broder couldn't remember too much of the period of (mostly) unified party but divided ideological control in 1937-1952, and baby boomer journalists don't remember either era.  For anyone covering Washington in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, bipartisanship between mostly ideologically coherent parties was both necessary, and, therefore, normal (although that's a bit less true of nomination politics, since there was unified White House/Senate control in 1977-1986). 

In a divided government era, it was common for parties that "won" elections -- Republicans in 1968 and 1972, Democrats in 1974, Republicans in 1980 and 1984, Democrats in 1982 and 1986, Republicans in 1988 and 1994, Democrats again in 1996 -- to win very limited victories.  We may now have entered a period where that's no longer true.  If so, it's not surprising that the rules that worked well enough for Senators in the previous era won't work as well in the new one.  Since I'm not a big fan of simple majoritarian democracy, I hope that the new rules, whenever they're adopted, retain some of the advantages of the structure of the Senate, even as they make it easier for party majorities to act.  And perhaps Republicans will win a landslide this fall, and we'll be back in divided government, perhaps for a long time again.  But if elections continue to send unified governments to Washington, we're going to have some kind of change.

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