Congress Rules!

Ken AshfordCongress, Health CareLeave a Comment

I hate all the gibberish about parliamentary proceedings, but I think it comes down to this:

If the minority party can use the filibuster to do an end-run around the majority-wins rules of Congress, then the majority party is well within its rights to do an end-run around the filibuster by using "reconcilliation".

That's it.  That's all I have to say.  Rules are rules.  If one party can use the rules to their advantage, why can't the other party?

UPDATE:  David Frum has an interesting piece on why Congress is so fucked up today.  it starts…

At the end of his career, former House Speaker Tip O’Neill was asked how Congress had changed between the 1950s and 1980s. O’Neill answered: “The people are better. The results are worse.”

Watching last week’s health summit, you see what O’Neill meant. The conversation was intelligent, civil, well-informed. It also predictably achieved nothing. How could it? Deals are never reached in front of the television camera.

Take this quiz. Name the most important legislation enacted in the 30 years between 1950 and 1980.

Overwhelming isn’t it? Civil rights. Voting rights. Interstate highways. Medicare. Medicaid. The deregulation of the airlines, natural gas, trucking, rail and oil. The immigration act of 1965. Clean Air, Clean Water, and the Endangered Species Acts. Supplemental Security Income in 1974. I could fill the whole screen.

Now … the next 30 years.

There’s the Reagan tax cuts of course. Deregulation of the savings & loans in 1982. The Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. Welfare reform in 1995. Medicare Part D. What else?

Leave aside whether you are liberal or conservative, whether you approve the measures mentioned above or disapprove. It’s hard to dispute: Congress just got a lot more done in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s than in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.


You hear many grand, sweeping explanations. Let’s try just one simple one.

Congress in the first period was controlled by a handful of committee chairmen, who owed their positions to seniority. The committees did their work in secret. Bills written in committee typically could not be amended on the floor of Congress. The institution was authoritarian, hierarchical, opaque. And stuff passed.

In the mid-1970s, Congress underwent a revolution. The power of the committee chairmen was broken. The number of subcommittees proliferated. The committees met in public. Amendments multiplied. Congress become more open, more egalitarian, more responsive. And stuff ceased to pass.

Again and again, today’s gridlock can be traced to yesterday’s reform.

He goes on to discuss the filibuster…

Is the filibuster grinding Congress to a halt? Before the 1970s, filibusters were both very rare and very difficult. But when Congress took action to make filibusters easier to break, it inadvertently made them easier to use. Back in the 1950s, a filibuster would bring the entire Senate to a halt, as the filibustering Senator talked and talked and talked.

A filibuster was both spectacularly visible and personally exhausting: it exacted a high price from the filibustering senator. Then Congress took action to make filibusters easier to break, requiring only 60 votes instead of 67. But that same deal made them much easier to start. No need to speechify all night; no colleagues enraged that the filibustering senator has paralyzed the chamber.

Today, a filibustering senator need only notify the majority leader of his intention. The filibustered legislation is sidetracked until 60 votes are found to enact it, while other business continues as normal. The price of the filibuster has been drastically cut. No surprise we get more of them.

…as well as campaign fundraising, and the influence of lobbyists, among other things.  but his meta-point seems to be that the reason things happened in the 50's, 60's, and 70's is because legislation happened behind closed doors.  In effect, openness and transparency has killed the ability of Congress to get things done.

Kevin Drum agrees, but offers a much simpler explanation:

The era between 1950 and 1980 was an essentially liberal one. That applies to the 60s and 70s pretty obviously, but even the 50s, underneath McCarthyism and the man in the gray flannel suit, was defined mainly by consolidation of the New Deal. Eisenhower wasn't called a New Republican for nothing.

The succeeding 30 years, famously, were primarily conservative. And that makes a fundamental difference. Liberals, by nature, want to change things. They want to pass big stuff. Conservatives, by nature, want to conserve. They want to prevent change. Occasionally this takes the form of rolling back liberal programs (tax cuts, welfare reform), but rolling back progress is hard and rare. For the most part, conservatism takes the form of not undertaking big legislative changes. So it's hardly any surprise that a conservative era is marked by lack of seminal congressional actions.

In other words, despite the fact that Obama is president, we are hardly in a liberal era.