Change is hard. Change often creates loss. It is disorienting – shattering norms and expectations. Perhaps the hardest thing about creating change is dealing with the entrenched interests who thrive because of the status quo, who derive their competitive advantage from the current system.
Often, however, the system no longer creates the results for which it was originally designed. The higher goal – the institutional purpose – is no longer fulfilled by the system in place. When this happens, change is needed, but it is also when the status quo digs in.
The world is changing in incredible ways: economically, politically and socially. Unfortunately, back home in the US of A, our political system refuses to adapt to new realities. A system perfectly built for an America comfortably on top is not adequate for an America that needs to re-accelerate.
For the past few months, some Senate Democrats have been getting together to try to reform the Senate so that it works smoothly, so that more bills can actually get up or down votes and one Senator cannot anonymously hold up a bill or nomination. They would have been able to change the rules, based on a rule in the Constitution that gives the Senate the right to establish its rules by majority vote at the beginning of each session. This is called the “constitutional option.”
Last Thursday Democratic Majority Leader Harry Read and Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced they had agreed to largely keep the system in place. They did eliminate one of the worst abuses, that of an anonymous hold; but they did nothing to change the problem that, as of now, every bill needs 60 votes to pass. And the real kicker is that they made a gentlemen’s truce that neither one of them would attempt to change the rules by majority vote in the next four years. What this comes down to is veteran Democratic Senators deciding that although they do not like the filibuster, they want to be able to use it if they are in the minority in the future. Instead of deciding they could succeed based on the strength of their ideas, they decided they might need the same cowardly maneuver the idealess Republican Party used for the past two years.
Many have observed, truthfully, that this last Congress was one of the most productive in history. Even before a productive lame duck, it passed monumental health reform, two big stimulus packages and financial regulation reform. Relative to the past, this was a lot.
But this point glosses over a huge systemic problem, and two functions the Senate has not fulfilled. The problem is a structure that gives the minority absolutely no incentive to cooperate. If the government functions well, the majority party gets the credit and remains the majority. The only way to get back into power is by obstructing until government becomes sclerotic and incompetent. This gets the blame placed on the majority party, and presents the best chance for the minority to regain power. This is the approach that Republicans exploited perfectly over the past few years, and they reaped the rewards in November.
See, what people need to understand about the Senate is that it is an institution with a lot of norms and rules that stick mostly because of inertia. One norm: a single Senator can request to place a hold on a Presidential confirmation or a bill in a committee, and the request gets granted, anonymously, no questions asked.
Another is the filibuster. When we all learned about the filibuster class, it was the strategy of talking for a very long time on the Senate floor to delay the vote on a bill. Now, however, Senators do not even have to conduct a filibuster on the floor; they just have to signal their intent to the majority leader that they plan on filibustering. In order to break the filibuster, the majority then must find 60 votes to force a vote or debate (yes, Senators can prevent debate on a bill, not just the vote).
Over the past 30 years the use of the filibuster has steadily increased. But in the last few it has exploded, with unprecedented Republican use in the past two years. Now like I said, it is true that relative to past Congresses, this one has been one of the most productive. But it is also true that we face more adaptive challenges as a nation than at almost any time in history. There are urgent needs for health, education, energy, tax, immigration and financial reform, as well as for new investments in infrastructure and research and development.
These aren’t just a few wish list items where batting .300 will cut it. In order to fully meet our challenges, we need to do all of these things. Yet the system that makes compromise and cooperation four-letter words will not allow us to face these challenges; and that’s just the sexy stuff.
The un-sexy job of the Senate is to confirm executive branch nominees for positions throughout government, a key part of the legislature’s “check” on the executive branch. Almost more essential than the passing of laws, these officials make government work. They are federal judges and administrators throughout the federal branches; they are the authorities in the Federal Reserve who monitor our economy and money supply. They do essential jobs for the country, and without them, government cannot function.
However, because of anonymous holds and filibusters, hundreds of nominees have yet to be even voted on by the Senate. This manifests itself in the real functioning of the country when the Federal Research Board cannot hold a quorum, so their stimulative policies lapse and the economy slows down (which is what happened last April); or when key people in the Department of the Interior have not yet been confirmed for their jobs, and their vacancies result in an incompetent department during a humungous oil spill.
In his State of the Union address, President Obama spoke of winning the future. In order to do this, we need a governing apparatus that is adaptable and honest, and has all hands on deck. Unfortunately, because of entrenched interests on both sides of the aisle, the changes needed seem unlikely to come anytime soon.
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