Ungovernable watch

UNGOVERNABLE WATCH…. Ezra Klein had a great item over the weekend on one of my favorite subjects: the Californification of the federal political system, and the dysfunctional underpinnings that make governing in D.C. so painfully difficult.

Congress doesn’t need a two-thirds majority to get anything done. It needs a three-fifths majority, but that’s not usually available, either. Ever since Newt Gingrich partnered with Bob Dole to retake the Congress atop a successful strategy of relentless and effective obstructionism, Congress has been virtually incapable of doing anything difficult because the minority party will either block it or run against it, or both. And make no mistake: Congress will need to do hard things, and soon. […]

These two problems get to the essential difficulties confronting the nation: There is no doubt that minority parties generally profit in elections when the unemployment rate is high. But given that reality, what incentive do they have to help the majority party lower the unemployment rate? Further out, there is no doubt that the majority party has an incentive to prevent a fiscal crisis on its watch. But what incentive does the minority party have to sign on to the screamingly painful decisions that will avert crisis?

Right. A congressional minority would, in theory, have three possible motivations for cooperating with the majority in tackling policy problems. The first would be a modicum of patriotism — the country has problems that need fixing, and patriots who care about the nation’s future would feel the urge to do the right thing. That doesn’t apply to the modern GOP — it’s not that they hate the United States, it’s that they believe some problems are imaginary (global warming) and other problems can be addressed just as soon they’re done destroying Democrats.

The second is fear. If the minority believes the public will be outraged by blind obstructionism and a deliberate effort to make national conditions worse, the minority would fear electoral punishment and, as such, be more responsible. That that doesn’t apply to the modern GOP, either — Republicans assume (probably correctly) that most voters aren’t paying enough attention to current events to notice their tactics. And if recent prognostications are accurate, the GOP will be rewarded in the midterms for their misconduct, creating an even stronger incentive to reject and block problem-solving.

The third is the desire to produce better policy results. As Bruce Bartlett, among others, has written of late, if Republicans were less reckless, they could work with Democrats and move policy proposals to the right, which presumably would be a party goal. But the modern GOP prefers to take its chances, and hope that its obstructionist tactics are enough to stop progressive legislation from passing anyway.

Of course, the problem isn’t limited to motivations. As Ezra put it, “What happens when one of the two major parties does not see a political upside in solving problems and has the power to keep those problems from being solved?”

We now have a political system in which a majority of the House, a majority of the Senate, a majority of the electorate, and the president can all agree on a specific policy proposal, but it still can’t become law due to obstructionist tactics from the minority. Ours is the only major democracy on the planet that gives the minority the tools to stop the majority from governing.

Matt Yglesias had a good item on this yesterday:

In most political systems, it doesn’t really matter that the minority has no incentive to help the majority. What the minority does is outline an alternate policy dynamic, try to make hay out of scandals, and generally wait in the wings to seize the opportunity to take over if the majority can’t deliver the goods. But the US political system actually affords the minority substantial opportunities to prevent the majority from delivering the goods.

I’d just add that, while it’s not a formal mechanism, media expectations about “bipartisanship” also badly skew the process. Not only does the minority have the tools to prevent the majority from governing, when the majority manages to overcome the absurd hurdles, it’s the majority which is blamed for not doing more to accommodate the minority (see Broder, David).

In other words, in our 21st-century political system, Republicans, after having failed and been discredited, can still block the majority’s agenda, still have an incentive to undermine American public policy, and still complain if Democrats don’t do enough to satisfy their misguided demands.

It’s not exactly a recipe for a functional, effective political system.