Thursday, December 24, 2009


Here's how Andrew Sullivan put it:
The Beltway cannot handle all this. And that's why they continue to jump on every micro-talking-point and forget vast forests for a few failing saplings. But when you consider the magnitude of shifting from one conservative era to one in which government simply has to be deployed to tackle deep structural problems, the achievement is as significant as his election year.
 And here's how Jacob Weisberg put it a four weeks ago:
We are so submerged in the details of this debate—whether the bill will include a "public option," limit coverage for abortion, or tax Botox—that it's easy to lose sight of the magnitude of the impending change. For the federal government to take responsibility for health coverage will be a transformation of the American social contract and the single biggest change in government's role since the New Deal. If Obama governs for four or eight years and accomplishes nothing else, he may be judged the most consequential domestic president since LBJ.

Putting aside the overly presidential focus here, and also putting aside the debate over whether Obama's (and the Democrats') accomplishments are liberal or conservative, I think both of these writers are on to something: the Democrats are passing their agenda.

I don't know about Washingtonians in general, but I do think there is a group that's reluctant to recognize what's happening: the Democrats.  Mainstream, liberal, Democrats.  They're winning, and apparently they're so out of practice at it that they can't quite believe it's happening. (Yes, this needs a caveat -- I'll put one below, but I'm not talking about the part of the left that's apparently trying to prove that the crazy isn't just for Tea Partiers any more).

And so, just as they're about to come within one step of pulling off their greatest legislative achievement in decades, everyone has decided that the next big fight is...process.  Time to battle the filibuster, because thanks to the filibuster nothing can get done in Washington.  We're hearing it from all over -- from Paul Krugman, from James Fallows, from Matt Yglesias, from Kevin Drum..  Here's Ezra Klein:
At this point, structural reform of the legislative system should, I think, be the main priority for people left, right, and center who want to see action on the problems facing the country.
But...structural reform of the legislative system was not needed to pass a huge stimulus bill.  It apparently will not be needed to pass comprehensive health care reform.  It's not at all clear that it's needed to pass a climate bill, given that there are multiple bipartisan plans out there right now (of course, it's also not clear that there are 50 votes for a climate bill, either).

Three points.  First, in terms of practical politics, I think there's something to be gained by raising the issue, but only for the inside-the-Beltway crowd.  Out in the country, no one wants to hear about process, and no one wants to hear excuses for why a 60 vote Democratic majority can't pass bills -- and, in fact, Democrats should be focusing on what they are getting done, not what they haven't done yet.  (I realize that the people I'm citing here are not Democratic spinners, and I'm not telling them what they should be saying.  I'm just giving different advice to those who are Democratic spinners.

Second, in terms of legislative strategy, I think it's pretty futile to even think about process reforms right now; the calendar is chock full of good stuff for Congress to get to.  I do support cracking down on the most egregious violations of Senate norms...I'd like to see Harry Reid mobilize his 60 Senators to shut down the more pathetic holds and filibusters out there, the ones on basically non-controversial nominees (that's where having Beltway support would be helpful).  It's also worth pointing out that there's absolutely nothing unethical or immoral in using reconciliation, including for major reforms, even if there were (in my view) very good reasons not to take that path for health care reform.  None of those things take procedural change, however, as long as Dems have 60. 

And third...well, I'm ambivalent about the filibuster (bad, bad, blogger!).  I'll probably get around to a much longer post on just this topic at some point in the next week or so.  Basically: I'm strongly against simply majoritarian democracy, and I'll be happy to debate anyone on that.  At the same time, the American system has plenty of anti-majoritarian devices, with or without the filibuster, and it's hard to make a case for the routine filibuster, the true 60 vote Senate.  It's also true, however, that a lot (but hardly all) of the other structural impediments to majority party rule have disappeared over the last fifty years.  I'd love to see a design for a real, but limited use, filibuster, but I don't believe such a thing is practical.  Again, more later.

The bottom line, though is that the Demcrats are moving legislation, filibuster or no.  I strongly suspect that unless the bottom drops out of the economy, things go really bad really quickly in Afghanistan, or some unforeseen crisis dominates things, that the Democrats can get even more done in 2010.  After that, there will be plenty of time for worrying about procedure.  For now, I'd recommend that Democrats stop, look around, and realize just how much they can get done under current procedures.

(The caveat: of course, there are plenty of disappointments.  The American system is incremental, and will be regardless of the filibuster...and sometimes, all of us hear what we want to hear from candidates, not what they are actually saying, and we tend to forget that others who voted with us wanted very different things.  But I do think it's pretty fair to say that the broad mainstream of the Democratic party is realizing a lot of success this year.  Assuming, above all, that the health care bill actually passes).

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