Posted by: Jeff | February 1, 2010

Klein Gets Real About Congress

Our health care guru over at The Washington Post offers some wise words on how American voters misconstrue the behavior of Congress:

We’re very familiar with a model of Congress in which legislators disagree over policy and that causes them to vote against one another. We’re much more concerned by the idea that they don’t disagree at all, but are simply trying to win the next election.

But the latter does a much better job explaining how congresspeople actually vote. It’s impossible to offer a principled explanation for Republicans who voted for the deficit-financed Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit but attacked the deficit-cutting health-care reform bill as too profligate. Similarly, Republicans routinely raised the debt limit when they controlled the Senate, but they hammered Democrats when they did the same thing last month. But the debt, of course, is the product of many presidents and many Congresses (what’s up, Bush tax cuts of ’01 and ’03?), and Republicans don’t think we should stop paying it.

The problem with believing that Congress runs on ideology rather than electoral interests is that it perpetuates the harmful misconception that legislators of good faith can get together and agree on policy, and that when that doesn’t happen, something has gone wrong, or the policy in question is terribly extreme. We tell the public to expect agreement and then tell them to be disgusted when that agreement never manifests. It’s a recipe for cynicism, and it’s not accurate.

This is how Congress works: The majority party wants to govern. The minority party wants to make the majority a failure at governing. If you want to predict congressional outcomes, you’d do a lot better sticking to those two principles than following the optimistic statements of the media and the bipartisan hopes of the commentariat.

Drawing on my own subjective experience, I think that bit about how “we tell the public to expect agreement and then tell them to be disgusted when that agreement never manifests” is the key point. Most people, in my experience, really do seem to think that broad consensus between Democrats and Republicans should be possible on most issues. The idea of unbridgeable disagreement between the parties is alien to them, and they find abhorrent the idea that it’s simply natural to settle most issues through raw partisan political might.

But it really is natural. The ideological commitments and first principles of 300 million Americans are simply too diverse for broad, non-antagonistic consensus to be a realistic goal. And as Klein says, the result of these unrealistic expectations is poisonous to the political discourse. The President, the two major parties, and the judicial branch all face varying degrees of popularity, but no one is as unpopular as Congress. American voters seem to hate the legislative branch with a rather unique passion. Why? Well, one explanation might be that, out of all the branches and institutions of government, the legislature is where the real-world disagreement and messy give-and-take of politics actually occurs. Congress is where the expectations of Americans about how politics should look and operate runs into the unfeeling brick wall of reality.

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