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Majorities Should Be Able to Govern

[ 73 ] November 26, 2012 |

This might be the key paragraph in this useful Times description of the increasing gridlock in the Senate:

Critics of the idea, who exist in both parties, say such a change would do great damage, causing Washington to career from one set of policies to another, depending on which party held power.

Your point being? The first problem here is that making the Senate function like a proper legislative body wouldn’t, itself, cause radical shifts of policy to result from elections. The United States would still retain a system with an unusually high number of veto points, and the power of the Senate would be constrained by the House, the executive branch, and the courts (who are most likely to challenge the federal government in periods where there has been a major partisan shift.)

And perhaps more importantly, even in parliamentary systems you generally don’t see radical shifts resulting from changes in government. Responsible party government has a moderating effect because it decreases the chances to shift responsibility for unpopular policies. And you can see this even in the American system during times of unified party government. Note, as I’ve pointed out before, that it wasn’t the filibuster that stopped the Bush administration from privatizing Social Security. Filibusters did allow Democrats to stop a few terrible judges, but they certainly haven’t been net winners here, and every time a more dysfunctional equilibrium is established this helps reactionary interests.

Anyway, it is true that policies would shift more after elections were won and lost without the filibuster (even if this shift will be much less severe than many expect.) So what? Parties that win elections should be able to govern and properly staff executive and judicial positions.

Comments (73)

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  1. LosGatosCA says:

    Your point being?

    Accountability is to be avoided at all costs.

    Get with the program.

  2. LosGatosCA says:

    Just in case you had any doubt via digby:

    When Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) was asked what he intended to do with his caucus’ new power, he responded with one word: Nothing.

    Yup. There’s one goal once you’ve been elected – get re-elected. Governing is for suckers.

    • Holden Pattern says:

      It’s not even “get re-elected”. These fuckers are term limited, and almost all of them would get re-elected no matter what. Most Dem districts in CA are strong Dem — the Assembly and Senate have both been one or two seats away from a 2/3 supermajority for a decade or more.

      They just don’t want to upset whoever will be writing them checks after they finish their term limits. But at least they’re not the Republicans, who are crazy! Doing nothing is less suffering that the Republicans doing something.

  3. Holden Pattern says:

    On the other hand, the California Democratic Party’s position is that even a 2/3 supermajority ought not do anything that might be upsetting.

    No, seriously.

    Three thoughts spring to mind:

    1) The first is obvious and obscene.

    2) The second is this: the old saw was that a liberal is someone who won’t take their own side in a fight. What we see is that the old saw wasn’t quite right: Apparently, a Dem is someone you elect to take ONLY their own personal side, not yours — wouldn’t want to rock the bipartisan lobbyist / consultancy boat.

    3) This is the end game of lesser-evilism.

    • Scott P. says:

      A bold argument in favor of greater-evilism.

      • Holden Pattern says:

        Yes, yes, Ralph Nader is history’s greatest monster. And the status quo is the best of all possible worlds. And if lefties don’t like it, they should find some money somewhere and buy some politicians like everyone else does.

        • c u n d gulag says:

          Unfortunately, we unemployed, and/or low-paid, Liberals have already used all of the loose change we found under our couch cushions and car seats.

          Where, oh where, is George Soros when we need him? ;-)

        • Yes, yes, Ralph Nader is history’s greatest monster. And the status quo is the best of all possible worlds. And if lefties don’t like it, they should find some money somewhere and buy some politicians like everyone else does.

          Do you have any response other than a whine, when faced with Scott P.’s rather obvious point?

          I don’t think you do. If you did, I think we would have heard it by now.

          • Again, it’s important to remember that HP is a Naderite without the courage of his convictions. When pressed, he doesn’t think you should throw elections to Republicans — he just really likes passive-aggressive whining about how people are suppressing him because he’s to the left of Barack Obama, although pretty much everyone here is.

            • Dilan Esper says:

              I don’t think people who would have supported Joe Lieberman had he been on a Democratic line on the ballot get to tell us how “left” they are.

              • Scott Lemieux says:

                Your belief that the key test of one’s “leftism” is whether one is willing to embrace transparently counterproductive political tactics is quite mistaken, just like your belief that if you think that if Candidate A is substantially preferable to Candidate B therefore Candidate A’s positions must be identical to yours.

              • I don’t think people so profoundly ignorant of politics that they don’t think leftists can engage in coalitions get to tell us anything.

                The German Communist Party entered into a red-brown coalition with the fucking Nazis in the early 30s – and they did so for the purpose of damaging those centrist sell-outs known as the Social Democratic Party. I guess the German Communist Party was not only idiotic, but neoliberal, or whatever other big word you use for “people who consistently kick my ass when I try to argue politics.”

    • That is…relatively unconvincing.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

      This is correct. However, lesser evilism remains the least bad viable option. Sucks to be us.

    • Ian says:

      I remain somewhat optimistic. This supermajority is very tenuous, with special elections coming up soonish, and there’s the state-level version of the Blue Dog problem to contend with. It’s not surprising that a politician would refrain from telling the LA Times that they’re going to push through radical changes. Can we wait until we see what they actually do before we condemn them?

  4. wengler says:

    Every Senator should be able to anonymously stop whatever they want.

    Any other configuration of powers would harm their very deliberative deliberating.

  5. Mike S. says:

    Drastic swings in policy are unlikely, b/c of checks and balances. Juxtaposed with the following: if Romney were to have won, the consequences vis-a-vis policy change would be ruinous for millions of Americans.

    Lemieux, lol, it never gets old.

    • Timb says:

      Scott’s argument about Romney was more about the Executive branch and judicial nominees.

      The legislative argument is as follows: had Romney won, he would have pulled a bunch of other nutters with him, which would have changed budgeting in the country. However, if one were French or Saudi Arabian, one would not find huge differences in elite conscensus just because parties could actually enact their legislation. Thus, massive policy shifts are unlikely.

      • bradP says:

        However, if one were French or Saudi Arabian, one would not find huge differences in elite conscensus just because parties could actually enact their legislation.

        I’m not sure I get what you are saying.

        There are two markedly cohesive parties. A shift from 51 democrats to 51 republicans seems like it would lead to as much as a policy shift as shifting from Obama to Romney.

        However, one wouldn’t lead to much of a shift in policy and one would be disastrous.

    • Once you get passed the forced-laughter pose, all you have for your argument is the pretense (I hope its a pretense) of not understanding the difference between a 100% shift in the control of the executive branch, vs. a 7% shift in control of one house of the legislature.

      • bradP says:

        Wouldn’t a 7% shift in the make up of one house of the legislature result in virtually 100% shift in control of the house in most occasions?

        The argument you are making seems to assume that there is a varied spectrum of legislators, when there is in fact only two fairly cohesive parties.

        • Bijan Parsia says:

          But…100% of one house != 100% control of the legislature, much less the legislative process (in the US).

          (Though narrowly the answer is yes for cohesive parties.)

        • Wouldn’t a 7% shift in the make up of one house of the legislature result in virtually 100% shift in control of the house in most occasions?

          No, because we have large catch-all parties, not responsible parties.

          Replacing seven Olympia Snowes with seven Ben Nelsons does have a meaningful effect on the Senate, but a limited one.

    • The fact that leftier-than-thous can’t tell the difference between “constrained” and “nonexistent” power makes me think that at bottom most of them just aren’t very bright.

      • Dilan Esper says:

        The fact that you haven’t figured out that keeping the other party out of power in the short term can move your party to the right in the longer term doesn’t exactly say much about your political acumen either.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          You fantasies that losing elections makes the Democratic Party substantially more liberal are sort of charming, but no less wrong for that.

          • bradP says:

            His point still stands:

            Your hostage vote for democrats only incentivizes them to pander to interests further and further from your own.

            • Murc says:

              History would seem to disprove this point. People withholding their votes hasn’t ever been effective at moving political parties, because you’re effectively making yourself irrelevant.

              Can you explain why NOW is different than literally every other point in the history of this, or any other currently existing, Republic?

              • Bijan Parsia says:

                Indeed!

                You might make a case that voting erratically might help (because certainty leads to taking for granted). But I’m not sure this is true in general either.

                Are Democrats really so very awful at delivering for the bulk of their supporters? The problem with being strongly leftist is is that one is a very small part of the coalition. We still get a much better deal with Democrats than we would with Republicans, but we don’t get a superduper deal.

                Unions are a really interesting case. They definitely don’t get a great deal at all from Democrats and are super important beyond their voting numbers. But I suspect a lot of that has to do with the multifaceted onslaught on unions. It’s not just that there are incentives to take them for granted, but it’s harder to deliver the goods. Contrariwise, it’s gotten easier (but by no means trivial) to deliver the goods for gays.

                Any model which fails to take into account 1) other interests in the coalition, 2) your size/strength in the coalition, and 3) the difficulty of your goals is not particularly helpful.

                • DocAmazing says:

                  Are Democrats really so very awful at delivering for the bulk of their supporters?

                  You might want to ask the families of the deported.

                • …to whom the Democratic President delivered the Dream Act by Executive Order.

                  That’s probably why they voted for him so overwhelmingly.

                • DocAmazing says:

                  Record numbers of deprtations.

                  It’s nice that Obama did something good. It does not atone for the bad.

                • Bijan Parsia says:

                  Do people with family members who have been deported (which is awful) constitute the bulk of the Democratic coalition?

                  Hmm.

                  Among children of Latino immigrants, about 4 in 10 second-generation immigrant children have at least one undocumented immigrant parents and hence live in a mixed-status family (Fry & Passel, 2009).

                  So a substantial fraction, at “best”, are at risk.

                  Largely as a result of the implementation of the aforementioned legislation, the number of cases before immigration courts increased 30.6%, from 282,396 in 2001 to 368,848 in 2005; the percentage of noncitizens ordered to
                  be removed from the United States increased from 78% in 2001 to 84% in 2005 (Office of Planning, Analysis, & Technology, 2006). In 2008, Immigration Customs Enforcement apprehended 792,000 noncitizens, detained more than 397,000, and deported more than 359,000 of them; this was the sixth consecutive year with a record high number of deportations (Office of Immigration Statistics, 2008). The majority of deportees migrated from Latin American countries: Mexican nationals accounted for nearly 89% of those
                  apprehended in 2008, while the next largest source countries were Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Cuba, and Brazil (Office of Immigration Statistics,
                  2008). A 2006 report found that 70% of individuals in formal removal proceedings had lived in the United States for more than a decade, and the median length of residence was 14 years (TRAC Immigration, 2006). Many deportees leave U.S.-born children behind; the U.S. Immigration Customs
                  Enforcement agency reported that more than 100,000 parents of U.S. citizen children were deported between 1997 and 2007 (“108,000 people deported,” 2009). A recent report issued by the University of California Berkley and Davis Schools of Law found that between 1997 and 2007, 88,000 U.S. citizen children (44,000 of whom were less than the age of 5 years) lost a legal permanent resident parent to deportation (Baum, Jones, & Barry, 2010).

                  So, substantially bad, I agree. Although the Democrats seem more promising, nevertheless.

                  (And, again, I was making a “bulk” argument. Hispanics are clearly a very important part of the coalition and a growing part. But, as with gays, the negative policies don’t seem strongly driven by Democrats. DADT was the back up (crappy) plan, for example. The enforcement drive was, as I understand it, to build cred with Republicans for reform. (Not that that seems like a great idea.)

                  So, let me rephrase: Do Democrats serve the bulk of their coalition, across all issues, so very poorly and in such a way that the components of the coalitions don’t have a substantive voice? I don’t think so. They aren’t brilliant, but they do deliver substantial goods for the larger part of their coalition and are somewhat responsive. They have a lot of competing voices in their coalition, of course.)

            • timb says:

              While libertarians are just sweeping to power all over the place?

          • You fantasies that losing elections makes the Democratic Party substantially more liberal are sort of charming, but no less wrong for that.

            Two things Dilan Esper will never do:

            1. Come up with a rebuttal to this point.

            2. Stop making the argument that was just refuted.

        • Malaclypse says:

          The fact that you haven’t figured out that keeping the other party out of power in the short term can move your party to the right in the longer term doesn’t exactly say much about your political acumen either.

          Given your political acumen, it should be easy for you to give illustrative examples of the times that losing to Republicans moved the Democratic Party to the left.

        • Bijan Parsia says:

          Let me grant your hypothesis that “that keeping the other party out of power in the short term can move your party to the right in the longer term”. Indeed, let’s stipulate a scenario wherein this is so.

          Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I mean, in one sense it seems obviously a bad thing, right? I certainly don’t want a more right democratic party. But isn’t the pertinent question not whether the party moves right but whether the government gets worse?

          To pick a simple scenario, it may be the case that keeping the other party out of power might entail a long term rightward shift, but, historically, being out of power has also cause a rightward shift!

          Similarly, I’d predict that a decade of Democrats moving rightward but staying in power is better than a decade of Democrats out of power in terms of the overall rightist cast of the government (say, over 20 years). I’d bet it’d be worse in terms of the right wing shift of Democrats as well.

          There is an asymmetry between Republicans and Democrats on this, it seems.

          Note that we have a more cohesively progressive Senate after 8 years of Democratic control (plus 4 years of Obama). Say what?!

          Similarly, we have a more cohesively progressive House caucus…but no power.

    • Murc says:

      if Romney were to have won, the consequences vis-a-vis policy change would be ruinous for millions of Americans.

      A Romney presidential victory would have almost certainly also resulted in a Republican Senate and expanded House majority. This would have placed all three branches in Republican control, which would have allowed to enact ruinous policy.

      In the unlikely event that Romney had won the Presidency and literally nothing else had changed, he would have enacted ruinous policy, but it would not have been nearly as ruinous as he’d have liked.

      Finally, Scott is not arguing that if we had a government system that allowed majorities to govern, drastic swings in policy would be unlikely “because of checks and balances.” Having full, obvious, transparent responsibility for policy changes has a well-documented moderating effect on parties.

      Witness, for example, the UK, which doesn’t have Constitution, an effectively unicameral legislature, and has, I believe, legislative supremacy, which means Parliament can do damn near anything it wants to. The various postwar Tory governments have done a lot of looting and destroying, and they govern in very different ways than Labour does… but you don’t see them dismantle the NHS and eliminate the dole every time they come into power, only for Labour to re-institute them every time they return.

      I’m willing to concede that in the unlikely event we suddenly became a more responsive polity, there might be a lot of whipsawing until the Republicans either implode or settle down. Not like that’ll ever happen, tho.

    • Greg says:

      If the people voted for unified control of the government led by President Romney, they should be able to have the repeal of Obamacare, the Ryan budget, etc. That would be a disaster, so that’s why the FPers here were arguing that people should vote to keep him out of power.

  6. rea says:

    You know, the system worked pretty well, all things considered, before 2008, when the Rs started filibustering everything. Darn that Obama for wrecking a functioning system with his Kenyan Muslim Socialism

  7. TT says:

    In today’s NYT, Jon Meacham says that Obama should be like Jefferson and invite more opposing lawmakers over to dinner. Yes, presidential will will be worked and McConnell will automatically start filibustering and obstructing less if he gets to eat dinner now and then with the man whose two elections he has repeatedly dismissed as illegitimate. Villager logic remains as indisputable as ever.

  8. Lee says:

    This. On a related note, I usually think that Jonathan Bernstein is spot on but I find is persistant Madisonianism and anti-majoritarianism really bad. If a party wins an election and achieves control over the government than they should not face hurdles to implementing their policy.

  9. Joe says:

    I don’t think people who would have supported Joe Lieberman had he been on a Democratic line on the ballot get to tell us how “left” they are.

    What? So, scare tactics time, if Lieberman, Dick Cheney and Nader was running & voting for Nader would split things so Cheney will win a plurality, voting for L. will lead to revoking one’s “left” card? This is sensible, how? I ask since the writer is not just some troll. He just seems very off from time to time. It’s a bit sad.

    The fact that you haven’t figured out that keeping the other party out of power in the short term can move your party to the right in the longer term doesn’t exactly say much about your political acumen either.

    I’m not sure SL actually thinks this way and ultimately the issue is the filibuster. Having it, at least in the current form, doesn’t appear to have stopped the Democratic Party from moving right on certain points either. So, what’s your point here other that sneering at Scott?

    You seem to do that a lot.

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