Seriously Depressing News

This is not at all surprising. According to a recent Pew Research poll only 26% of Americans know how many votes it takes to pass a bill through the Senate under normal rules (h/t Jon Chait).

I consider this news depressing. The less Americans know about how government actually works (or doesn’t) the less sensible is the public’s response to what it does (or doesn’t) do and the less likely it is that anything will be done to address the structural problems that pose large barriers to important change.

As Matt Yglesias points out, obstructionism works as a political tactic in a climate of ignorance:

But I’d say the fact that people don’t understand how this [the filibuster] works is an important element of what makes it so effective. To a small slice of Americans, the GOP’s minoritarian obstructionism is a heroic stand. To another small slice of Americans, the GOP’s minoritarian obstructionism is an undemocratic disaster. But to the majority of Americans it’s completely invisible and all they see is a Democratic Party that can’t get things done.

One only needs to observe what has happened to health reform to appreciate the relevance of government structure and process. If there is one thing I wish Americans knew right now it is that the majority in the Senate can’t act like one when the minority has the power to decide what bills come to a vote.

Obama was absolutely right when he said to Republican senators in Wednesday night’s SOTU address,

[I]f the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town — a supermajority — then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well.

It is a political strength to have disproportionate control over the legislative agenda. As with any powerful tool that strength can be used for good or ill purposes. What will today’s minority choose? (My guess should not be surprising.)

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