Universal Translator

Monday, December 26, 2011

Changing the Rules

Ezra Klein had a good article the other day over at The Washington Monthly about the bipartisanship-seeking political group “No Labels” that I recommend checking out.

As a general rule, I don’t have much patience for political organizations whose only real purpose seems to be “getting everyone to stop fighting and work together,” because I think such organizations mistake bipartisanship for an actual political goal.  I really only care that my government enacts useful, desirable public policy – I don’t give much of a damn how it goes about doing so.  So if legislators working together in a bipartisan way, holding hands and singing Kumbaya is what’s necessary to get things done, then I’m all for bipartisanship.  But if practicing scorched earth, take no prisoners, hardball politics is the only way to enact good policy, then I’ll bring the metaphorical salt with which we can plow the political field after winning that fight.  Really, I’m just for whatever works. 

(I also have a tendency to sneer at groups who talk about creating a viable third party in this country.  That ain’t never gonna happen, because the people who make the rules for political parties are all of ‘em – every last one – people already devoted to preserving the primacy of either the Democratic or the Republican party.  You wanna see Republicans and Democrats working together to achieve a common goal?  Then take a stab at trying to break up their political duopoly; those guys’ll come together so fast it’ll make your head spin.)

To his credit, Klein begins his column pointing out all the many ways in which the “No Labels” group is so very, very annoying.  But then Klein pivots, and argues that one of the reasons our political process is dysfunctional right now is because the last time the rules by which Congress operates were reformed was way back in 1975.  As Klein points out – and as I argued recently – those rules were written when the parties last shared a broad consensus about government policy.  That consensus has since been shattered by the rise of the Teabagging Right (in all its many previous incarnations) and Congress’s existing rules simply cannot function in our new age of political polarization.

Recognizing this fact, No Labels has proposed a number of rule changes Congress should enact, many of them quite good.

Nominations to executive or judicial positions, for instance, would get an up-or-down vote after 90 days.  If the federal budget was late, members of Congress wouldn’t get paid.  Filibustering senators would actually have to do the Mr. Smith-Goes-to-Washington thing and hold the floor of Congress by talking.  No more filibustering without actually working for it.  Oh, and filibusters could only be mounted against the passage of a bill – currently, the motion to move to debate is frequently filibustered, which means the filibuster is used to choke off debate rather than protect it.

I can support all those.  Right now it is way too easy for a handful of congressmen – or even for a single senator (the ‘anonymous hold,’ anyone?) – to grind the legislative process to a complete halt.  These suggested changes would impose a cost on congressmen and senators who abused the rules with the purpose – not of advancing their own policy prescriptions – but simply of blocking the other side’s.  Paralysis is not policy, and there should be a price to be paid if one is simply going to throw sand in the gears of government.

Really, do click over and read the article.  Besides discussing these proposed rule changes, Klein also provides some data that illustrate just how polarized our politics have gotten over the past 30 years and that suggest continuing to merely insist that everybody “work together in a bipartisan way” is unlikely to do much to actually push the country forward.

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