Posted by: Jeff | January 20, 2010

The Sweet Release of 59 Votes

Comparisons between the current situation for the Democrats and the previous situation for the Republicans seem to have become quite common. The general theme of these comparisons is usually some variation on the question, “How come the Democrats can’t seem to get what they want done, when Bush was able to do whatever he wanted even though he never had the 60-vote majority the Democrats do?” (Or, at least, that they had until yesterday.)

There are several responses to make. The first is that most of Bush’s major accomplishments (if you can call them that) were in the realm of foreign policy. And in that arena, the president simply has far more leeway vis-a-vis Congress than he does when it comes to domestic policy. Obama’s agenda, by contrast, has so far dealt more or less entirely in domestic politics.

Second, Bush’s two major legislative successes were Medicare Part D and his tax cuts. And frankly, what makes both these bills stand out is their catastrophic irresponsibility. They were the definition of a free lunch. The tax cuts were simply done for the sake of cutting taxes, and severely increased our deficit spending over the ensuing years. Medicare Part D also added hundreds of billions to our deficit, as no tax hikes were included in the legislation to actually pay for the massive new benefit. And the simple fact is that passing irresponsible legislation is easy, because it imposes no immediate pain on voters. (It just destroys the financial health of their country ten or so years down the line.)

Whatever else can be said about it, the Democrats’ health care bill is not financially irresponsible. Huge efforts were made to impose the cuts to Medicare and the new taxes necessary to make the bill deficit neutral. The Democrats didn’t delay the pain or try to hide it. And for this responsibility, they have born the fury of voters and interests groups alike.

But the third and most important point to make is that the Bush/Obama comparison doesn’t actually pan out. The legislative push by Bush and the Republicans most similar to the current health care debate was their attempt to reform Social Security. Like the current reform push, that bill was a domestic initiative which would have imposed massive structural changes on a program affecting the lives of huge numbers of Americans. Bush made the push for it coming off a big re-election win in 2004 with majorities in both houses of Congress. And Social Security reform, whatever one might think of its merits, was at least relatively sane financially.

And it got creamed. It was one of the signature defeats of Bush’s second term. What this should tell us is that, even with the Democrats’ 60-vote majority, getting this far on health care reform has been nothing short of a miracle. Yet the Democrats have labored under the broad public perception that with their supermajority they should be able to do whatever they want. And if they can’t, then they must not be worth voting for.

This brings me to Mark Schmitt’s argument in The American Prospect that losing the supermajority in the Senate may actually be a blessing in disguise. Possessing those magical 60 votes left the Democrats vulnerable not only to the idiosyncrasies of the Ben Nelsons and Joe Liebermans of the world, but to the freak occurrences of politics, of which the upset in Massachusetts is only the latest example. Worst of all, the perception that the Democrats “could do whatever they wanted” had the perverse effect of freeing up the Republicans to obstruct with impunity.

Yet the perception of a Democratic supermajority freed Republicans from any responsibility to engage at all. With complete impunity, they were able to unite in opposition to a health bill that in other years they would have called their own. Rather than propose serious amendments, or try to improve things they didn’t like, they were able to denounce the whole thing as being rammed through on a partisan basis. Conservative writer Byron York left me sputtering in a recent episode of Bloggingheads when he observed — almost correctly — that no major piece of social legislation had ever been put through on a completely partisan basis. Yes — with the exception of the massive Clinton 1993 budget — but never had a minority party so completely opted out of governance. Having 41 votes makes nonparticipation just a little less credible. If the perceived lesson of Massachusetts, together with the practical reality of a Senate that no longer has a 60-vote majority, is that we need more bipartisanship, for which party does that create a greater obligation to change? The majority that has spent the entire year in what some thought was a futile quest to build bridges? Or the one that walked away?

Yes, yes, I know that’s a silly and rhetorical question because Republicans aren’t playing for legislative wins; they’re playing for total dominance. But the reality is that purely partisan governance in this country is almost always impossible, even using the budget reconciliation process. As much as the Bush administration used every possible partisan tool to enact its agenda, most of its major legislative achievements came with Democratic votes, even if Democrats were shut out of negotiations. When Bush won legislative victories, it was because he, together with Republicans in Congress, set an agenda that Democrats — sometimes just a few — felt they had to support. It was the power to set the agenda that Bush used ruthlessly, not just the power to pass bills.

Obama is in a fortunate position compared to Bill Clinton right before and after the 1994 Republican takeover. He, and Democrats in Congress, still has both the formal and the moral power to set the agenda. They should think carefully about setting it in a way that not only produces good results — because in times like these, results, not spin, are what matter — but also forces the Republicans to do more than stand on the sidelines. He can be bipartisan, but he has to force the opposition party to offer alternatives if they have them and cooperate if they don’t. If he does that, a return to productive progressive governance could be unexpectedly quick.

A party line supermajority so razor thin that keeping it requires buying off the likes of Ben Nelson is as much a curse as it is a blessing. It perverts legislation and leaves the party in power looking like it is entirely responsible for the current gridlock, even when almost the exact opposite is actually the case. The Republicans will no longer be able to just innocently shrug and say, “Well, they have their 60 votes. Why can’t they get it done?” Now they will be expected to actually participate in governance, and the country can judge them accordingly. We’ll see how that goes.

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