The Problem of the Senate

It’s often said that Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter “failed” in efforts to achieve major progressive structural reforms during their moments of opportunity in 1993–94 and 1977–78. But as Jonathan Chait persuasively argues this is more a situation where the opportunity for progressive change was deliberately squandered by congressional Democrats; especially Senate Democrats who work with the perverse structure of the world’s worst legislature to stifle change. Depressingly, Chait is able to mount a great deal of evidence that some of the same stuff is happening today to Barack Obama’s agenda.

On a related note, people sometimes have a model in their head whereby the typical moderate congressional Democrat is a solid-gold progressive who really wants to do great things for America but feels constrained by politics. That’s probably true of some of them. But one really shouldn’t assume that it’s uniformly true. After all, a Senator who wants to do the right thing on, say, climate change but worries that a strong cap-and-trade bill would be a tough political sell in his state ought to be eager to see cap-and-trade done through reconciliation. That way you can vote “no” like you think you have to, without the “no” vote killing the bill. And that’s hardly the only example. There’s tons of below-the-radar procedural stuff that a legislator whose “real” views are further-left than he thinks he can get away with could be doing. And I don’t actually see a ton of Senate Democrats trying to push those envelopes. But that’s something to think about when you’re eying a particular legislator and wondering where he or she really stands.