First Quarter Scoreboard

FIRST QUARTER SCOREBOARD….Ron Brownstein writes today that Democrats haven’t been ruthless enough against their own party’s dinosaurs. Nancy Pelosi, he says, should take a page from Newt Gingrich’s playbook and start dumping a few of the party’s most recalcitrant committee barons in favor of loyalists who actually care about moving the party’s agenda forward:

Gingrich’s changes replaced a culture of seniority with a culture of competition that awarded chairmanships to legislators who most reliably supported the leadership. Republicans carried the system to excess by systematically denying chairmanships to moderates and punishing almost any independent thinking. But overall, Gingrich’s approach helped Republicans consistently move their agenda through the House despite persistently narrow majorities.

When Democrats regained control after the 2006 elections, they insisted they had learned from Republican techniques. But they blinked at the toughest step. Pelosi, ruffling senior Democrats, maintained Gingrich’s term limits for chairmen. But she reverted to a seniority system in naming the chairman of every permanent House committee.

The result of this Democratic blinkery is John Dingell, who seems dedicated to using his chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee to block any and all environmental legislation in favor of yet more short-sighted protectionism for the auto industry in his home state of Michigan. Because, you know, protecting the American auto industry from the outside world has worked out so well for them over the past few decades.

But if Pelosi is too soft on Democrats, John Judis think that Harry Reid is too soft on Republicans. Judis harks back to the late 80s, and tells us that majority leader George Mitchell and speaker Tom Foley pursued a successful strategy of passing moderate legislation that President Bush was forced to veto, thus making him look like an obstructionist:

During his term, Mitchell and Foley sent Bush 36 pieces of legislation that he vetoed. These included the Family and Medical Leave Act, tax relief and urban aid (in the wake of the Los Angeles riots), extended jobless benefits (during a recession), a crime bill, the removal of a Bush administration ban on federal funding of fetal tissue research (which had been instrumental to discovering a polio vaccine), a bill removing the gag rule that forbade federally funded family planning counselors from discussing abortion, a bill regulating cable rates, and a campaign finance measure.

Unfortunately, all of these votes, as Judis acknowledges, required support from Republican moderates in order to pass. But that strategy pretty clearly won’t work in today’s Senate, which contains no more than half a dozen Republicans who could truly be called moderate. And even those half dozen are rarely willing to join Democrats in passing moderate legislation. The Gingrichization of the Republican Party has made moderate insubordination too costly to seriously consider.

The result is that Senate Republicans can filibuster anything they want to keep off Bush’s desk, allowing through only those bills that he’s willing to sign — or those in which a veto is actually helpful to the cause. Democrats simply don’t have the ability to force moderate legislation to the Oval Office as veto bait.

Neither Pelosi nor Reid look ready to join the pantheon of great congressional leaders yet, but given the slim majorities they command I’ve been reasonably impressed with their performance so far. These are nonetheless useful critiques, I think. Congress hasn’t accomplished much so far this year, and unless Pelosi and Reid can either turn this around or else place the blame on Republican obstructionism, Democrats might have a tough time at the polls next year.