It Takes a Congress

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Something to add to the growing “what’s Obama done wrong” literature and the “what’s wrong with the ‘what’s Obama don’t wrong’ literature” literature is that too often these discussions seem to me to forget that the United States Congress is composed of free and equal human beings who are responsible for their own actions. For example, it may or may not be the case that a different approach on the part of Barack Obama or his staff would have caused Ben Nelson to do different things low these past several months, but it’s absolutely certain that had Nelson wanted to do different things that different things would have happened.

Given that to err is human, I think we can take it for granted that some errors existed in the White House’s approach to legislative negotiations. But it’s also clear that members have their own volition. A skeptical Blanche Lincoln could have responded to the $800 billion stimulus request by asking Barack Obama “what does Christina Romer think? will this really fill the output gap?” Vulnerable House members could have challenged Rahm Emannuel “if things turn out to be worse than you guys expect, we’re all going to lose in the midterms—wouldn’t it be more prudent to build in provisions for additional stimulus if necessary?” The members who insisted on exempting auto dealerships from the jurisdiction of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau could have said “you know what, Michael Barr is right, this doesn’t make any sense; we should do the right thing and tell the dealers to stop whining.”

Which is just to say that in a lot of respects members of congress seem to me to benefit from the soft bigotry of low expectations. Nobody really expects them to do the right thing or to ask smart questions or to listen to experts rather than engage in random acts of political posturing. So when they do bad stuff, we blame the White House for not doing a better job of preventing them from doing bad stuff. And fair enough—dealing with congress is an important part of the job. But you also do need to blame the people who are doing the bad deeds.