Thursday, September 16, 2010

Why Voters are Angry: Part I

There is a good piece in the New York Review this week discussing the history of the filibuster.  Looking back at the history of this device shows how wrong it is to think that the filibuster is some kind of time-honored technique going back to the earliest days of the Senate.  The use of the filibuster has exploded in recent years, even when Democrats were in the minority in Congress during the Clinton administration, but even more so now that Republicans are in the minority.  By one measure cited in the article, the percentage of bills subjected to filibuster in the 1960's was about 8 percent.  In this decade it is 70%.  Paradoxically, the 1975 reform reducing the required vote for cloture from two thirds to 60 votes seems to have had the effect of making the filibuster a regular part of the way the Senate now operates, instead of a rare tool reserved for matters of strong principle (which was bad enough even in the old days, when the filibuster was mainly used for blocking civil rights legislation).  What that means is that the Senate now requires a super-majority for any important piece of business, and even for most routine pieces of business.  We should recognize that this is something fairly new in our history.

Alexander Hamilton is quoted in the article (from Federalist No. 22) as follows:
"To give a minority a negative upon the majority (which is always the case where more than a majority is requisite to a decision) is…to subject the sense of the greater number to that of the lesser number.” He added that such a provision would “destroy the energy of government,” handing outsized power to “an insignificant, turbulent or corrupt junto."
What an apt description of the way Congress functions today.  Polls show that voters dislike Congress and its leaders in both parties as much as ever, and that, for the most part, they dislike the Republican leadership and its programs more than the Democratic leadership and its programs.  Yet politically, the Republicans stand to gain the most in the short term from this voter discontent, in part because of the way they have maintained unity in Congress and have insisted on 60 votes for virtually anything to pass.  Because the Democrats control Congress by solid majorities, voters tend to blame the Democrats for whatever Congress gets done or can't get done.  Because the Republicans stand together in opposition, and refuse to allow any major piece of legislation to the floor for a simple up or down vote, they are able to argue that Democrats have "rammed through" or "shoved down their throats" bills like the stimulus or health care reform or financial regulation, all three of the major legislative achievements of the Obama presidency so far, even though much stronger versions of all of these bills would have been supported by the majority in Congress.  (The whole idea that anything supported by a three fifths majority has been "rammed through" is patently ridiculous, yet  the minority's embrace of the filibuster allows them to assert this ridiculous argument.)  Without such frequent use of the filibuster, we also probably would have been able to pass energy legislation and immigration reform, get judges and other appointees confirmed, and ratify arms control agreements, and we wouldn't even be talking about extending the Bush tax cuts on the highest-income Americans, something that only a minority of the public supports.

Not only have the Republicans been able to energize their base by falsely portraying themselves as victims of the Democratic steamroller, Democrats have also been dispirited and weakened by the device.  The left tends to blame the Democratic leadership for the concessions that were necessary to get people like Joe Lieberman and Blanche Lincoln and Ben Nelson, and occasionally Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe on board to pass important bills.  Strangely, they do not blame the unified opposition that has forced the use of super-majorities to pass these bills.  Requiring super-majorities has now become such an accepted practice that we rarely protest when the minority takes advantage of this "legitimate" tool to block or delay legislation supported by the majority. 

Voters cannot be expected to be experts in Senate rules, and even experts seem to have gotten accustomed to the corrupt system we now take for granted.  So voters are not angry about abuse of the rules, and are not crying out for rules reform.  They are angry that Congress seems so polarized, and that its leaders do not work well together.  My guess is that we will not achieve reform of a rule that in Hamilton's words, is destroying the energy of government and allowing a corrupt junto to maintain control of Congress, unless and until both parties perceive that the rule is hurting both parties politically.


  1. As you say, voters are angry. Bush gets a large part of the blame but it goes back further to Clinton's administration as well. Voters are rebelling against a 20-30 years of Congressional incompetence. Obama came to power at an unfortunate time for him. But he has not been a president with the audacity to challenge a dysfunctional business structure in America. Strategy is not what you say but what you do. What he, Pelosi and Reid have done has been poorly constructed -- but more importantly -- an unfortunate choice of priorities. He spent almost a trillion of stimulus money with little return and much of it was spent on goods manufactured in other countries. While he should have been focused jobs he chased health care reform and FinReg, neither of which is popular and both missed the major failing points: breaking up insurance company monopolies and TBTF. In my mind the president and congress have misplaced their energies from what matters most when it comes to adding jobs: TBTF which promotes gambling on wall street and is a disincentive for banks to invest back in our country -- and China's currency issues that discourage manufacturing at home.

    Voters are angry because men make less now than did 30 years ago. Many women went into the work force to hold onto a family lifestyle. We went into debt with our homes to survive and are now losing them. Money is flying out of this country and no steps are being taken to have it fly in. It's not the filibuster or the Republicans or the Democrats. It's Washington being Washington as usual. Voters are mad because our politicians won't do what is needed to save this country. We have a political crisis that is causing and prolonging the economic crisis. Somebody is going to tell somebody!

  2. Kevin, your response makes me think that everyone in the world probably has their own reasons for being angry, and who am I to say why people seem angry. But think about this: Don't we all have our own lists of what the government should or shouldn't have done differently to deal with this or that problem? What makes us think that if our particular list of priorities and prescriptions had been followed, that would necessarily have led to a better result? And more importantly, why does it make us angry if the people in charge have a somewhat different approach? Isn't it only natural to think that the decision-makers will not entirely agree on what you or I might think needs fixing and how to fix it? By and large the Obama administration has been following the agenda they promised during the campaign, which is the basis on which they were democratically elected. If the president was not living up to his promises, I could understand some anger. If things were not working out as well as people hoped, I could understand some disappointment or impatience. But I'm not sure you can explain people's anger by merely pointing to policy disagreements between different constituencies and the government.

    I do understand people being angry at the state of the economy or the deterioration of living standards or the decline of manufacturing, or the rise in personal and national debt, and I was going to get to those issues in another post. But I'm not sure why we should take all that anger out on the government. Our economy's problems can't all be the government's fault.

    So I come back to people's sense that the government is dysfunctional, which is why I started talking about the Senate, which seems to be the most dysfunctional body of them all.

  3. Good posts.

    The filibuster is not a Constitutional or "Founding Fathers" concept, but a 19th century device which is essentially antidemocratic in nature. We are Constitutionally "protected" from a Congress run amok by the Presidential veto (and if that fails, SCOTUS; if all three branches are in favor of something, well, absent Constitutional protection, "that's life" as the Founding Fathers created it).

    But let's face it; it's around because neither of the parties really wants "change." They're comfy trading power on and off, and playing to the fat cats that support the status quo. BO is just as afraid of the left as the Republican operatives are of the Tea Party. Both extremes are useful tools -- when kept in check.

    The sad thing is that most Americans are angry, but are kept from being effective as agents of change by being fooled into thinking that "their" party is really, really different than the other party, and that their party will deliver what they want. Thus, Republican politicians play up stupid divisive issues like abortion, which can't be changed via legislation. Dems promise health care reform, which in the end turns out to be a
    celebration of insurance company values.

    Bush makes a hard push for an imperial presidency; we vote out the bum, thinking that there will be change, but BO takes steps to enshrine Bush's executive power grab.

    Look at the Dems coming out of the woodwork to preserve Bush's tax cuts for the rich. As if I would leave the country, or become less productive, if my top tax rate were raised a lousy 3% or so to the high 30 percents, when Eisenhower's era saw an upper bracket of 90%.

    Hell, I was going to have a really relaxing day, and now I'M ANGRY!

  4. Joe, I agree that we each have a to-do list that favors our political persuasion; and that when a governing party implements their wish list that is bound to frustrate some. That’s normal. What I am saying is bigger than that.

    Let’s stop talking one party or the other for a moment and find common ground. Voters are angry because they are seeing that at some point we nearly all of us should agree on _some things_ that are essential to fairness in this country, jobs creation and our way of life. Neither party is acting.

    Let me make a basic analogy we can all easily understand: one man may like boobs, another may like butts; the women can make their own wish list. Then we have the Kinsey scale of 0-6 which says zero is strictly heterosexual, with six being strictly homosexual. It suggests there is a sliding scale of everything in between. Sounds like politics. But I think we can all agree that rape is wrong.

    Back to politics: Wall Street and China's undervalued currency are raping our country. This is not a party argument. Wall Street accounts for 65% of our GDP and their profits benefits few other than themselves. Swaps create nothing of value. Wall Street is no longer re-investing in our country the old fashioned way (which would create jobs). Why should they? It's too difficult to make money legally. Meanwhile, China is gaming the world markets with the under valued yuan. That is destroying American manufacturing and causing a loss of jobs let alone stifling creation. There is little argument that these two structural failures are largely responsible for our financial collapse.

    Reagan got the ball rolling; then Clinton and Rubin sat in a room somewhere and really screwed things up. Then Bush completely ignored the coming tsunami (although he did warm about Fannir and Freddie and was largely booed by Frank, Dodd and Waters). Poor Obama inherited the clusterf*ck. But he simply passed the issue over to Summers and Geitner – the very people who helped create the system and who refuse to alter it. Meanwhile, Obama and Congress chase health care reform. We finally see Warren on board and in the last couple days Geitner _mentioned_ China. Too late. Have you noticed Chris Dodd's squirming over Warren's appointment? He and Barney Frank's work over at Fannie and Freddie sure helped out. They are another couple folks whose legacy will shrivel in years to come. No wonder there is some momentum for real change.

    We will have new people in office over the next couple years. I don't care what we call them -- as long as there is real hope that structural change can occur. I'd like to see Obama and Congress prioritize. Less empahsis on ideology and proper urgent action on structural change that is necessary to have a country people want to live in.

    ZK … that was funny. I needed to smile!

  5. ZK, great post. To be clear, by funny I meant:

    << Hell, I was going to have a really relaxing day, and now I'M ANGRY! >>

  6. Thanks, KP. Always enjoy your posts as well!

    But if we keep sandwiching him, Joe's going to start a new blogsite -- without letting us know.