• 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.)

    • It is odd how there were so few people concerned with Democrats holding up Republican inititives when Republicans controlled the Senate. The whole system is only broken now that Democrats are in control of the White House and Congress.

      And we all know how Snowe and Collins have always been obstructionists and never willing to join with the Democrats. They so hyper-partisan.

    • To TIE and Webber —

      I have been thinking about this (= what the Democrats did when Republicans controlled the Senate) too. Do Democrats compromise more, because they are “nicer” or, more realistically, because their base is so much broader? Or is it because Republicans rarely want to initiate anything, except tax cuts and wars? In any case, current filibuster rules, in addition to questionable constitutional validity, favor Republicans.

      • @303 – The main differences between Republican and Democratic legislative and political behavior that I’ve heard and that I believe are (1) the difference in breadth of the coalitions (which you raised and basically explains party unity) and (2) the difference in attitudes about the role of government. All other things equal, if you believe government should play a relatively different (or larger) role then you may be more willing to bend to realize those ideals.

    • Current filibuster rules require Democrats to get 1 Republican vote. Do you really think Snowe, Collins, and a few others believe in a limited role for government?

      If the Democrats really want(ed) to pass something they just need to being Snow, Collins, and a few others into the room and work something out. When you are not able to bring Snowe or Collins to your side you really must be trying to pass something way outside of the mainstream.

      I am against all this but am quite surprised that Democrats have been unwilling or unable to bring along a couple of Republicans. Trying to lump Snowe and Collins in with conservative Republicans who oppose the expansion of government is not a convincing argument.

      • @Dan Webber – Your thesis doesn’t fit with the experience on health care. After months (and months and months), Snowe was satisfied on the policy. Then what did she say? Um, you’re going too quickly. That’s nonsense. In fact they’ve gone just slow enough to probably kill it. Snowe may have a responsible bone or two in her body but she buckled under the pressure from her leadership. We know how to read political statements. To say “slow down” is to say “take a hike.” (And slow down for what, I might ask? She was satisfied with the bill!!!)

        But, that’s all beside the point. I’m not really talking about the current condition. I’m talking about government structure and processes more generally. That the filibuster is being used far more frequently than in the past and that Americans don’t know it or its effects is a serious issue. Keep in mind the filibuster is not written into law. It isn’t in the constitution. It’s the Senate rules. The Senate has, by accumulation of rules, tied itself into more knots than the Founders envisioned.

        Don’t be too quick to say they can untie themselves. The party that jettisons the filibuster will be branded as initiating a self-serving government take over.

    • Why would Snowe buckle under pressure from party leadership? Republicans in the Senate will support her re-election bid no matter what she does. I think you should ask what is going so wrong in the process or policy that you can lose Snowe and Collins.

      I don’t remember many on the left complaining about the use of filibusters when Bush judicial nominees were being held up. And I don’t think those on the left will want a change to the filibuster rules if Republicans take control back of the Senate. This is all politics.

      What Democrats should do is moderate their policy so that 5 to 10 Republicans come along. It takes being willing to give in on certain things (government option, exceptions for union, no special deals for certain states, abortion language, tort reform, etc.). All the recent discussion about how we need to change how the Senate rules work make me think Democrats have learned nothing from the Massachusetts Senate race.

      • @Dan Webber – By now it should be clear that where our views depart is with the facts about Snowe (and, though not yet mentioned explicitly, probably about the experience last summer on the Senate Finance Committee). I’ll remind you that Snowe voted for the Senate Finance Committee bill. Please point to the way in which the current bill(s) differ from that bill that is the source of Snowe’s dissatisfaction. What is it that must be added or dropped to win her vote?

        The idea that Democrats can get 5-10 Republicans on a bill that makes sense is laughable. If more Republican support were possible we would have seen it on the Senate Finance Committee bill. Baucus really tried hard, to the consternation of many in the Democratic base. You did notice that, right?

        If we disagree about the interpretation of the process toward and vote on the Senate Finance Committee bill then we’re not going to agree on anything that follows. That’s fine. Let’s agree to disagree. But let’s be clear what it is about. Snowe voted once for something not that different from current bills. Then she wanted to slow down. For what? Tell me.

    • The difference is that the bill got significantly less popular with the public with time. Snowe is a politician without strong core beliefs and if therefore subject to the the whim of the public.

      Why did Ben Nelson need the Nebraska kickback before voting for the bill? Why did Mary Landreau need the Louisiana purchase in order to vote for the bill? Would you rather Snowe have asked for some kickback money to support the bill? This bill got uglier with time and she took the chance to bail. To put blame on Snowe for the Democrats inability to get one Republican vote is misguided.

      Thanks for your feedback. I know we won’t agree on this but that is fine. I’ll leave you a quote from Obama from the campaign about his healthcare plans:

      “If you’ve got health insurance through your employer, you can keep your health insurance, keep your choice of doctor, keep your plan,” Mr. Obama said in his Oct. 15, 2008 debate against McCain. “The only thing we’re going to try to do is lower costs so that those cost savings are passed onto you. And we estimate we can cut the average family’s premium by about $2,500 per year.”

      Obama set expectations way too high for health care reform so support began slipping and has continued to slip as more details rolled out. People thought we were going to provide health insurance to those who don’t have it and lower costs for those that do. I’m not sure why anyone believed him when he said it but it helped him become President. It was just a promise on which he could not deliver.


      • @Dan Webber – Now you’ve changed the topic again. (By the way, the “kickback” and “purchase” are among the things likely to be negotiated out of the bill.)

        You’ve dodged my question about what would satisfy Snowe and, therefore, Republicans (which is what you said Dems should do). Now you’re telling us that Snowe has no spine. Fine. Are you sure that’s the argument you want to make for why Republican support doesn’t exist for the bill? What should Dems do, put “give Snowe a spine” in the bill? I just don’t see how you’re arguing in good faith here. The danger in taking that approach is you’ll lose my interest. What’s the point in debating someone who can’t stick to the topic and support his own claims?

    • I don’t think I changed the topic at all. What this all comes down to is that “moderates” such as Nelson, Landreau, Snowe, and Collins want to support bills that their constituents like. The substance is less important to them because their core political beliefs are not as strong as those on the left and right. When public opinion turns, the opposition moderates ran because there was no upside to voting yes and the D’s ask for “kickbacks” to provide cover at home for the vote.

      What D’s need to do is to scale back the proposal far enough to entice Snowe and possible a few others along. It is as simple as that. Declare victory and get things moving along. Who knows what will happen after that.

      There is no need to change the rules of the Senate now just as there was no need when the Reublicans were in charge. The D’s just have to comprimise more with 59 votes versus 60. They had the chanve to get this done with 60 and failed. Time to move on.

      • @Dan Webber – Look, Snowe already judged the bill. She voted it out of committee. Then she changed her tune. What is the scaling back that brings her around? What is it she wants? That’s what you won’t answer. Her answer was “slow down.” This not slow enough for her? Come on! (Now if she actually says tomorrow that she’ll vote for the bill then I will be the first to say she meant her word on “slow down.”)

        Had she stayed on board the Democrats wouldn’t have needed to do so much arm twisting. Having already satisfied her in committee, what is it you wanted them to do?

        You keep saying “scale back” but won’t say to what. Point to a proposal that makes sense and can get 60 votes in the Senate.

        You can keep saying the same words but that doesn’t mean you’ve actually defended your position. Just read my questions and answer them if you want to satisfy me. If you don’t want to do that (which is fine by me), let’s just stop. In fact, I will tell you now that I am stopping. Either your reply will answer the questions (in which case I’m satisfied) or it won’t (in which case there’s no point to this).

    • I have defended my position so we can end it here. But to conclude, how would I know what Olympia Snowe wants? That is not the point. When you cut the number of votes you need so close and then have a bill that the public does not like, don’t be surprised when some squishy moderates walk away or require “kickbacks”. That is all I am trying to say.

      The D’s should have got this finished when they had 60 votes. They now have 59. Time to put something before Snowe that she will accpet or time to end this. Those should be the only options unless you want to break the filibuster rules. Ans then be prepared to bear the consequences when the R’s are in charge again.

      Thanks for the chat. I enjoy the site even though I don’t often agree.

    • I should not have said that I don’t often agree with you. Most of your posts are fact based and interesting to read for someone who is not involved in these matters all the time.