Friday, December 11, 2009

Dysfunctional Congress

Yglesias is right, but this is really the Founding Fathers' fault. In fact, virtually everything in our governmental institutions that makes no sense is their fault. In their defense, it was 200 freakin' years ago, and we could easily fix these problems if we were inclined to. I don't think we are. I don't think we want to accept how intractable our debates have become.

Basically, the rules of the Senate--in which minorities can stop or slow down legislation easily--don't make any sense and aren't democratic, unless you assume that there won't be partisanship and that people will therefore have little incentive to obstruct. Which happens to have been what the Framers assumed. Additionally, the absolutely nonsensical notion of Midterm elections only makes sense if you ignore political parties--it's a kinda-sorta referendum on the president (who isn't on the ballot), running against a leaderless opposition party. But if there weren't parties, there wouldn't be a particular problem with the setup. And the biggest problem of all--the electoral college--makes sense if you imagine an election in which a dozen people run for president competitively and someone wins with like 30% of the vote. Then the EC looks like a good way of making it seem like there was a conclusive winner.

So, the Founding Fathers made a bad assumption in thinking there wouldn't be political parties (though they didn't ban them in the Constitution, for whatever reason). Parliamentary systems embrace the party idea and tend to be more democratic, accountable, and dynamic--just better, in other words. None of these are new insights (a young political scientist named Woodrow Wilson proposed replacing Congress with a parliamentary system in his Ph.D. dissertation in the late 1890s, after spending a lot of time observing how Congress worked), and while I don't think our system of government is hopeless, it definitely needs some tweaks.

What I find very interesting about the debate about Senate obstructionism is how steadfastly Democratic Senators cling to the filibuster. It's true that they no doubt want it to stick around for when the GOP controls the chamber again, and doing away with it would diminish their individual power immensely. But the filibuster hurts the Democrats far more than it hurts the Republicans. The declining poll numbers and lack of enthusiasm for Congressional Democrats has stemmed mainly from Democratic voters frustrated that Congress isn't doing anything. However, I have yet to see any evidence that this factor has hurt Republicans in decent years. After all, 3/4 of the party still approved of Bush after Iraq, Afghanistan, the financial collapse and Katrina. And while the party now hates NCLB and Medicare Part D, they weren't particularly exercised about them at the time. Even now, the GOP is wholly excited about winning seats in next year's midterm elections, despite the fact that the GOP has put forward no concrete ideas and is essentially uninterested in governing. Republican voters don't much seem to care what their party does or doesn't do--they just want to see it in power. It's just a big culture war game to them. So, if in the future the Democrats were to adopt a Mitch McConnell-style strategy and filibuster everything, Republicans wouldn't care. They don't expect anything from the GOP. They just want to keep the Godless commie atheist lesbians out of power. The filibuster debate is asymmetrical--not only is the institution inherently conservative, but it is positively tilted toward Republicans. Until the Democrats get this through their heads, it's going to keep hurting them.

And that's it for me this week. Here's the very greatest Southern accent ever in a film (because I'm kinda obsessed with it):

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.