Don’t let some successes fool you

DON’T LET SOME SUCCESSES FOOL YOU…. The 111th Congress racked up an extraordinary record of success, despite levels of obstructionism unseen in American history. But the observation might seem self-defeating — doesn’t the former negate the latter? If Congress could pass so many historic, breakthrough bills, maybe Senate obstructionism isn’t such a big deal?

Don’t let recent successes fool you. Alex Pareene had a good item on this earlier.

Even this successful-looking lame duck demonstrated how difficult it’s become to do the simplest things in the world’s most deliberative body. The Senate had to pass the food safety bill multiple times, because of procedural screw-ups. The 9/11 bill shrunk — after it “failed” a vote by receiving more than 50 but fewer than 60 votes — because one cranky senator threatened to single-handedly delay another vote until after Christmas.

The Senate just gave up on slightly difficult but necessary things, like the DREAM Act and the appropriations bill. The failure of the omnibus spending bill will have major repercussions. It means that the government can’t actually act on the wonderful progressive things the Senate passed earlier this year, like healthcare reform and financial regulation. If Dodd-Frank can’t be implemented, does it even matter? And the Democrats failed to even come close to passing a budget while they still controlled both houses.

Sure, the Senate approved 19 judges. 19 out of 38 pending nominations. One confirmed judge had been awaiting confirmation since January. And as part of the “deal” between Democrats and Republicans, Democrats won’t even seek votes on four other pending judges. (This is the point where liberal bloggers all reminisce about the days of “straight up-or-down votes.”) After two years, Obama has managed get 60 judges confirmed, which is an absurdly low number, especially for a president whose party “controls” the Senate.

Meanwhile, we’ve got no climate bill, no immigration reform, no budget, and no hope of improving, rather than dismantling, the healthcare reform law. This was the dying breath of a sick Congress.

Obviously, the lame-duck session exceeded expectations, and was, by some measures, extraordinary. But Pareene is right about how it could have been even better, and would have been were it not for pointless procedural hurdles.

I’d add for context that for much of the 111th Congress, the majority party had 59 votes — a very high number by historical standards — and still couldn’t even bring up some key legislation that enjoyed majority support. This is important precisely because 59-member majorities are so rare — we can’t have a Senate that fails to function when one party “only” has a narrow majority, since one party nearly always has a narrow majority.

In other words, it might well be a generation until a Senate majority is as large as the one we see now. Will we have to wait that long until the chamber can vote up or down on important legislation?

Abuse of existing rules has not only made the Senate ridiculous, it’s literally undermined the strength of the American political system. I’m thrilled the 111th Congress was able to do all that it did, but (a) these victories would have been even better if the chamber operated on majority rule; (b) there would have been more success stories if the chamber operated on majority rule; and (c) the accomplishments shouldn’t mask a dramatic and systemic flaw, brought on by abuses with no precedent in American history.

With that in mind, the need for reform is overwhelming. Greg Sargent reports today that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is “in active discussions with his caucus about moving forward with reform in the new year.” That’s a very encouraging step in the right direction.