Tuesday, December 29, 2009

"Ungovernable" (III)

Douthat flags a piece by Jay Cost that defends the filibuster. The basic thrust is that eliminating the filibuster will cause huge swings in policy as each party enacts "ideologically extreme" policies each time they take control of congress, and repeals the policies of the other party.

Now, parties may have become more polarized, but reading his piece makes it sound like every member of the Democratic caucus is Patrick Leahy or Bernie Sanders. There are very few "ideologically extreme" members of congress on either side. Like it or not, this is a center-right country. There are only small constituencies for extreme policy on the left or the right. Notice that during the health care debate, single-payer was raised as a policy option very infrequently, and usually by folks like Sanders or my Representative, Keith Ellison. Instead, even if there weren't a filibuster, the most "extreme" policy that would have resulted was a moderately strong public option. And I'm still not convinced there are 51 votes for a strong public option in the Senate. On the other side of the aisle, there isn't a conservative cry to repeal Medicare and Medicaid, which would be the deficit-hawk, small-government conservative position if it were intellectually honest. The spectre of "extreme" policy is largely a phantom.

Douthat writes:

We’ll get fiscal responsibility through a bipartisan compromise, engineered by centrists in both parties and capable of getting 65-70 votes, or else we won’t get it at all. We may need a better class of centrist to make such a compromise possible — but we probably don’t need to abolish the filibuster along the way.

Just how likely does he think this is? The current congress is so consumed with narcissism, parochialism and the all-encompassing pathological need for reelection that serious legislation seems like a pipe dream.

Douthat is right to point to the stimulus and HCR as big accomplishments for the Democratic congress. But he doesn't look deep enough. The stimulus was a deeply flawed bill. The need to get enough small-minded members of congress to sign on turned a good idea into a bill that was smaller than needed and loaded down with pork and tax cuts instead of the infrastructure spending that the country badly needs. (Living until recently in Chicago, where you can see bridges and underpasses crumbling before your eyes, and now in Minneapolis, where, well, this happened, I believe strongly in the need for the US to look to rebuilding its infrastructure.)

The need to get Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson to sign onto HCR didn't make it a better bill. It took out a public option that would have saved billions for the government and the public. It threw a random chunk of funding at Nebraska for Medicaid as a blatant payoff for Nelson's vote. How is this making better policy?

And at the end of the day, there's the 8,000 pound gorilla in the room. The GOP is not interested in governing. They are interested in obstructing the president's agenda so as to win elections in 2010. That is not good for the country, no matter who is in charge. And the filibuster is enabling that strategy.

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