Ungovernable

UNGOVERNABLE…. Responding to the notion that the federal law-making process has become so intractable that the country is basically “ungovernable,” Glenn Reynolds argues:

Funny, that dumb cowboy Bush seemed to get a lot done with fewer votes in Congress….

It’s just a snarky, 16-word comment, but it’s also a noteworthy assessment, in part because it touches on so many important angles.

There is an impression that W. Bush was able to get more through Congress than President Obama has, at least so far, so it got me thinking about whether this is, in fact, true.

On its face, the comparison is difficult — Bush had eight years; Obama hasn’t quite been in office 11 months. Bush entered office in a period of peace and prosperity, with an enormous budget surplus, and with the United States held in high regard around the globe. Obama entered office in a period of economic collapse, two costly wars, and with the nation’s international reputation stained. The differences matter.

What’s more, I’m not sure I buy the premise. When I look back at the Bush/Cheney era, I think of a lot of things — incompetence, corruption, mismanagement, neglect, spectacular failures on a generational scale in almost every imaginable area of public policy — but “accomplished legislative record” isn’t one of them. He passed huge tax cuts, increased spending, expanded the federal bureaucracy, and expanded Medicare, but most of those accomplishments came in his first three years. In his entire second term, Bush sought very little — after his Social Security privatization failed, the White House effectively stopped having a domestic agenda — and got very little in return.

More to the point, the legislative successes Bush achieved came when Democrats joined Republicans to support the administration’s agenda. Indeed, congressional Dems always worked with Bush in good faith, ready to negotiate — despite questions surround the legitimacy of his presidency — and because there are so many moderate and center-right Democrats, Bush was able to score at least a couple key victories on the Hill.

For that matter, when Republicans held the congressional majority, Democrats rejected the filibuster-literally-everything approach to lawmaking. In many instances, Bush, like nearly every other president, could sign bills into law if they enjoyed the support of a majority of the House and a majority of the Senate. Obama has no such luxury — Republicans’ obstructionist tactics have no precedent in American history, and GOP moderates willing to work with the majority can be counted on one hand (a hand missing a couple of fingers).

Glenn Reynolds’ suggestion is that Bush was simply more effective in getting what he wanted. But that overlooks all of the relevant details — the crises, the diversity of thought among Dems, the lack of diversity of thought among Republicans, and the abandonment of majority rule in the Senate.

Bush’s obviously limited intellect, in this case, is irrelevant.

It’s easy to scoff, but the structural impediments to policymaking in 2009 weren’t in place a few years ago. It gets back to the Californiafication argument.

Rich Yeselson recently proposed a thought experiment. Imagine if President Obama, as chief executives of yore used to do, was able to pursue his policy agenda by having a majority of the House and a majority of the Senate approve legislation he proposes. (This is old-school thinking, I know.) The stimulus would have been stronger, and would have passed easily. The health care bill would be more ambitious, and would already be law. The climate change bill could be further reaching, etc.

Except, that doesn’t seem to be on the table.

We are living through the Californiafication of America — a country in which the combination of a determined minority and a procedural supermajority legislative requirement makes it impossible to rationally address public policy challenges. And thus the Democratic president and his allies in Congress are evaluated on the basis of extreme compromise measures — supplicating to dispassionate Wise Men like Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman, buying Olympia Snowe a vacation home, working bills through 76 committees and countless “procedural” votes — rather than the substantive, policy achievements of bills that would merely require a simple majority to pass.

It is sheer good fortune that the Democrats had 59/60 Senate seats this cycle and thus were able to pass any stimulus at all, albeit the inadequate one they did. Think about it: With a robust 56 Senate Democratic seats, the stimulus would have failed — and otherwise, Galston/Brooks would be talking not about Obama’s “going too far,” but, rather, about a “failed Obama presidency.” And they would be wrong. What we would be witnessing — and are still witnessing — is a failed system of democratic governance. It’s something procedural liberals should be deeply concerned about and should remedy as quickly as possible.

In the abstract, the landscape probably seems a little ridiculous. After extraordinary failures, Republicans were pushed into a tiny, humiliated minority. Democrats received a mandate unlike any we’ve seen in a generation — a major presidential win (365 electoral votes), a huge House majority (256 seats, or 59%), and the largest Senate majority in decades. The GOP quickly became a small, discredited minority, and Democrats were positioned to do largely as they pleased.

And yet, the Californiafication issues persist.

Of course, it’s worth emphasizing that the “ungovernable” dynamic only seems to exist for Democrats. When Dems have so many moderates and center-right members, a Republican president and a Republican Congress don’t have less to worry about in terms of obstructionism — enough Dems will help the GOP across the legislative finish line.

As this year has made clear, this is turned on its head in a period of Democratic ascendance.

The process was designed to have choke points to ensure checks and balances, prevent abuses, etc. But even at a time when urgent action is needed, the choke points have grown more plentiful and impenetrable. The need for reform is overwhelming.