Process and Substance: Two Great Tastes That Taste Great Together

Ezra Klein remarks on our present dilemma:

I think that analytically honest political commentators right now should be struggling with a pretty hard choice: Do you try to maximize the possibility of good, if still insufficient, outcomes? Or do you admit what many people already know and say that our political process has gone into total system failure and the overriding priority is building the long-term case for structural reform of America’s lawmaking process? Put another way, can you really solve any of our policy problems until you solve our fundamental political problem? And don’t think about it in terms of when your team is in power. Think of it in terms of the next 30 years, and the challenges we face.

I think that this is a bit of a false choice. Normally, procedural and substantive reforms go together. Certainly you saw that the substantive legislation of the Civil Rights and Great Society period were intimately related to reforms of how congress operated. The New Deal required a revamping of Supreme Court constitutional doctrine and the construction of a modern administrative state apparatus. Even in 2009, it’s important to recall that the essential backdrop of today’s Waxman-Markey vote (substantive) was Henry Waxman’s successful challenge to John Dingell to helm the Energy & Commerce Committee.

For Waxman, there was no contradiction between seeking a substantive reform of energy policy and seeking a procedural shakeup. The problem is that very few other senior Democrats seem to be thinking Waxman-style. In particular, almost nobody in the United States Senate seems willing to admit that the Senate’s rules are a huge impediment to sound public policy rather than cute and lovable quirks.