Wednesday, January 6, 2010

"Ungovernable" (IV)

Douthat thrusts:

Frankly, I have a very difficult time believing that Ezra Klein, or any other anti-filibuster liberal, would really rather live in a world where the Bush tax cuts had been larger, permanent, and easily passed on a party line vote. The filibuster has constrained recent Democratic efforts on the stimulus and health care, but those efforts would have been much more radically constrained if the Obama administration had inherited the tax code as rewritten by Dick Cheney and Trent Lott, circa 2001. Without the filibuster, 51 Republican senators a decade ago would have been able to tie the hands of 60 Democratic Senators in 2010. With it, the country was spared — and continues to be spared, at least to some extent — the tyranny of temporary and highly ideological majorities.

Klein parries:

But just this once: Yes, I really would prefer to live in a world without a filibuster. Indeed, I'd prefer it so much that I've consistently argued for the elimination of the rule on a six- or eight-year time lag, by which point Barack Obama would not be in office and the party in control of the Senate is anybody's guess. This isn't about making Obama's presidency go better. It's about making the legislative process work better.

Both posts raise interesting points. Yes, it is nice that Bush's tax cuts will expire. But Klein's point about the rarity of 60-vote majorities is worth considering. As he has pointed out before, the current system incentivizes obstruction by the minority party. The GOP knows that blocking the Dems can win them seats. There is no incentive to work with the Dems to pass good legislation. Fortunately, the Democrats have 60 votes.

Douthat is operating under the assumption that either party will pass better ("less radical") legislation if they are forced to compromise for 60 votes. I see two problems with this:

1. If we've learned anything this past year, it's that the minority party doesn't want to compromise, it wants to obstruct. Does he really think Congress would have made any progress at all toward fixing health care if the Dems had only had 57 votes? Maybe they would have passed tort reform. That's about it. The reliance on centrists and compromise is a pipe dream. The "centrists" in congress aren't really much more principled than the ideologues. Sen. Snowe thought a year of deliberation was "rushing" health care reform. Seriously? Compromise is a lost art in the senate, offered as a sacrifice to the gods of electoral politics.

2. Does compromise really create a better bill? Just to get all 60 Democratic votes, many good ideas were left on the cutting room floor. Read through this document that's being used on the Hill as negotiations between the Senate and House bills commence. Can you really make the case that the Senate bill is better? The House bill just needed a majority, and is a better bill for it.

I understand that the sword has two edges, and the GOP will be able to pass legislation, too. But you know what? If that's the price to pay for being able to govern the country effectively, under either party, I'm willing to pay it. The problems facing our country are too great for half-measures. I think we will probably see, in the years following the 2010 midterms, just what the filibuster can do to prevent good governance when neither party can muster 60 votes to pass legislation.

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