Our Broken Institutions

Mark Schmitt has a column which he opens with the sensible observation that the “filibuster-proof” 60 vote majority was largely an illusion anyway. You were never going to get 60 votes out of 60 for a climate/energy bill or an immigration bill or a deficit package, etc. But I think this goes off the rails:

Conservative writer Byron York left me sputtering in a recent episode of Bloggingheads when he observed — almost correctly — that no major piece of social legislation had ever been put through on a completely partisan basis. Yes — with the exception of the massive Clinton 1993 budget — but never had a minority party so completely opted out of governance. Having 41 votes makes nonparticipation just a little less credible. If the perceived lesson of Massachusetts, together with the practical reality of a Senate that no longer has a 60-vote majority, is that we need more bipartisanship, for which party does that create a greater obligation to change? The majority that has spent the entire year in what some thought was a futile quest to build bridges? Or the one that walked away?

Yes, yes, I know that’s a silly and rhetorical question because Republicans aren’t playing for legislative wins; they’re playing for total dominance. But the reality is that purely partisan governance in this country is almost always impossible, even using the budget reconciliation process. As much as the Bush administration used every possible partisan tool to enact its agenda, most of its major legislative achievements came with Democratic votes, even if Democrats were shut out of negotiations. When Bush won legislative victories, it was because he, together with Republicans in Congress, set an agenda that Democrats — sometimes just a few — felt they had to support. It was the power to set the agenda that Bush used ruthlessly, not just the power to pass bills.

Obama is in a fortunate position compared to Bill Clinton right before and after the 1994 Republican takeover. He, and Democrats in Congress, still has both the formal and the moral power to set the agenda. They should think carefully about setting it in a way that not only produces good results — because in times like these, results, not spin, are what matter — but also forces the Republicans to do more than stand on the sidelines. He can be bipartisan, but he has to force the opposition party to offer alternatives if they have them and cooperate if they don’t. If he does that, a return to productive progressive governance could be unexpectedly quick.


The problem here is that the Republican strategy of holding out for total surrender is working just fine. They had an interesting theory that if you refuse to cooperate with efforts to make the country better, things won’t get better and the out-of-power party will benefit. The theory appears to be true.