No matter what, the Senate will still need fixing

NO MATTER WHAT, THE SENATE WILL STILL NEED FIXING…. Way back in January, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) expressed some frustration that Republicans obstruct the political process “with impunity.”

Raising an issue that was relevant again this week, Durbin added at the time, “Some of the votes [Republicans] cast — we would be on trial for treason if we had voted against defense appropriations in the midst of a war.”

While that’s a bit of an exaggeration, the underlying point is obviously sound. Democrats can be proud of some remarkable accomplishments over last 21 months, but they’ve been repeatedly stymied by obstructionist tactics unlike anything we’ve seen in American history. Legislation that should have passed easily was blocked and/or killed. Legislation that did pass was needlessly made worse because majority-rule has been replaced with mandatory supermajorities. Key government posts remained vacant because the nomination process is broken, too.

This isn’t new, of course, but the point came to mind after reading a good item from Matt Yglesias the other day.

I’d say the problem is that by failing to get serious about procedural issues, Democrats have created a gigantic credibility problem for themselves. Under modern conditions, it’s not realistic for a political party to obtain 75 Senate seats or whatever and then deliver policy accomplishments. Holding 59 or 60 requires a minor miracle. What you can realistically do is win a majority in Congress, then expand that majority and also capture the White House and then maybe hold on to those majorities. That’d be an impressive electoral achievement.

But the events of 2009-2010 have made it painfully clear to everyone that under any realistic scenario for the 2010 elections the progressive vision is dead in the US Senate. There are all these policy ideas out there, from Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal to cap-and-trade to immigration reform to labor law reform. They could be stitched together into a bold vision for economic and social renewal. Except everyone knows you’re not going to get 60 votes for that stuff.

And so by failing to become vocal about procedural reform and demonstrate some seriousness about getting things done, the party leaders have created a situation where they can’t make any promises to anyone besides “if we do well we’ll negotiate with the Senators from New England but if we do badly we’ll have to negotiate with Lindsey Graham.”

In the wake of Republicans filibustering a vote just to have a debate on funding the military this week, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said institutional reform is now more likely. “I don’t think a filibuster before has ever prevented the Senate from getting to a defense authorization,” Levin said. “These filibusters on motions to proceed cannot be allowed to prevent us from getting our work done.” He added that Tuesday’s fiasco was “a very powerful argument for why we should change the rules.”

Clearly, that’s true, and when the new Congress begins its work next year, I’d certainly welcome an effort to make the Senate functional again.

But to Matt’s point, I strongly agree that Democrats and the Democratic agenda have been damaged by GOP procedural tactics in ways that are hard to fully appreciate.

It’s not fair or just, but Republican obstructionism has too often made Dems look weak and ineffectual. The largest Senate majority in decades has been stymied by abuses, but that won’t stop voters from rewarding those doing the abusing. If the midterms are largely a referendum on the economy — and I suspect that’s the case — it’s worth emphasizing that the inability to pass effective legislation has undermined growth and undercut job creation.

It’s the majority that gets the blame, even if it’s the minority that deserves it. Dems were tasked with rescuing the country in the wake of devastating Republican failures, and then were told they couldn’t act without at least some Republican approval — approval that was nearly, if not literally, impossible to earn.

Looking ahead, the events of this Congress have created a standard that no political system can endure — mandatory supermajorities for literally everything. Key milestone victories notwithstanding, an ambitious renewal agenda wasn’t even considered, because it was a foregone conclusion that the support a majority of the House, a majority of the Senate, and the White House is no longer enough to govern.

What would I have preferred in terms of Dems “getting serious about procedural issues”? In addition to pushing meaningful reform efforts, I would have liked to see this as a focal point for political activism.

Consider a hypothetical. Let’s say Democrats ran the government for several years, and drove the country into a ditch. Disgusted, voters elected a Republican president with a huge mandate, gave Republicans the biggest House majority either party has had in 20 years, and the biggest Senate majority either party has had in 30 years.

Then imagine that, despite the overwhelming edge, Democrats decided — during times of foreign and domestic crises — that they simply would not allow the GOP majority to govern. Dems ignored the election results and reflexively opposed literally every bill, initiative, and nominee of any consequence, trying to block anything and everything.

In this hypothetical, despite two wars, Democrats rejected funding for the troops. Despite a terrorist plot, Democrats rejected the qualified nominee to head the TSA. Despite an economic crisis, Democrats rejected economic recovery efforts, multiple jobs bills, funding for unemployment benefits, and nominees to fill key Treasury Department posts.

Now, in this hypothetical, what do you suppose the political climate would look like? Would GOP officials decide it’s time to try “bipartisan” governing?

Or would every single day be another opportunity for Republicans to be apoplectic about Democratic obstructionism? How many marches on Washington would Fox News organize, demanding that Democrats allow the governing majority to function? How ubiquitous would the phrase “up-or-down vote” be?

Put simply, I would have liked to see Democratic leaders imagine what Republicans would do if the situations were completely reversed. Then they should have done that.

As things stand, come January, I still think it’s likely there will be a Democratic majority in the upper chamber, albeit a much smaller one. At that point, to pass any meaningful bill, Dems will need eight or nine Republicans to break ranks, instead of one or two.

In other words, without institutional procedural reform, the most frustrating of the recent abuses will only get worse.