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The Californiafication of America

Rich Yeselson is annoyed by Bill Galston's contention that Barack Obama should listen to the concerns of the electorate and begin rapidly slicing the deficit down. Count me with Yeselson on this one: Pollsters generally believe that deficit anxiety is an expression of economic anxiety. People become very concerned about the deficit not when deficits are high, per se, but when unemployment is high, and economic growth is anemic (non-coincidentally, this is also when deficits grow, as tax revenues droop but the government needs to conduct more counter-cyclical spending). What Obama should do, Yeselson suggests, is pass a raft of ambitious economic policies that will address the root anxiety. But he can't:

We are living through the Californiafication of America -- a country in which the combination of a determined minority and a procedural supermajority legislative requirement makes it impossible to rationally address public policy challenges. And thus the Democratic president and his allies in Congress are evaluated on the basis of extreme compromise measures -- supplicating to dispassionate Wise Men such as Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman, buying Olympia Snowe a vacation home, working bills through 76 committees and countless "procedural" votes -- rather than the substantive policy achievements of bills that would merely require a simple majority to pass.

It is sheer good fortune that the Democrats had 59/60 Senate seats this cycle and thus were able to pass any stimulus at all, albeit the inadequate one they did. Think about it: With a robust 56 Senate Democratic seats, the stimulus would have failed -- and otherwise, Galston/Brooks would be talking not about Obama’s "going too far," but rather about a "failed Obama presidency." And they would be wrong. What we would be witnessing -- and are still witnessing -- is a failed system of democratic governance. It’s something procedural liberals should be deeply concerned about and should remedy as quickly as possible.

When Obama's health-care reform strategy was floundering, pundits generally blamed it on tactical deficiencies: If only Obama had been firmer with Congress, or more persuasive before the nation. When the bill passes, as now looks likely, it will similarly be attributed to learning the strategic lessons of the past, and negotiating the details skillfully and navigating the politics adroitly.

But it is not any of those things, at least not primarily. Health-care reform almost failed because Democrats had 60 votes rather than 70 votes. And it will probably pass because Democrats have 60 votes rather than 55 votes. On some level, that is how it should be. The primary determinant of legislative action should be electoral majorities, not tightrope diplomacy with the legislature. But 60 votes for is an extreme rarity in American politics. The last time either party controlled that many seats was in the mid-70s. That was not such a problem then, but polarization has become much worse over the past 30 years, so what was once possible with 55 votes, or even 50 votes, is far more difficult today.

Recognizing that change, I think, is the most difficult element of building a case for structural reform. Most people are open to the idea that a political system should adapt in response to radical transformations within a nation's political environment. But change happens slowly, and memories are short. Political scientists recognize that the filibuster has only become central in the past few decades, that political polarization roared back to life after relative consensus in the post-World War II period, that the Senate works differently today because it does so much more. But American politics still looks much the same as it always did -- two parties, three branches, November elections -- and so most people think that these institutions are much as they always were.

By Ezra Klein  |  October 30, 2009; 12:32 PM ET
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"Political scientists recognize that the filibuster has only become central in the past few decades, that political polarization roared back to life after relative consensus in the post-World War II period, that the Senate works differently today because it does so much more."

I beg to differ. I just finished reading Robert Caro's book Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, and he starts with a long history of the Senate, arguing that it was deliberately designed to slow down the pace of change. Sometimes that can be good, as when the Senate kept the Union together in the years before the Civil War, or refused to impeach Andrew Johnson afterwards, or refused to allow FDR to pack the Supreme Court with six new justices. But often the Senate stands in the way of change that the majority consistently supports, as for example during the many decades that the Senate stood in the way of federal civil rights legislation. So this is nothing new.

Posted by: tim37 | October 30, 2009 12:58 PM | Report abuse

And yet, the Republican Senate was able to get a large amount of issues onto the President's desk when Bush was in office, with substantially less than 60 votes. Funny how that works...

Posted by: nomlicious | October 30, 2009 12:59 PM | Report abuse

tim37, it is one thing to argue that the Senate *itself* was designed to slow down the pace of change (that is true!). On the other hand, it is simply wrong to point to any new procedural gridlock (eg, the now pro-forma use of the filibuster) that goes on in the Senate and say, "well, the Senate is supposed to slow things down, so that's alright."

The founders built in a few mechanisms that were meant to slow down the pace of change: namely, equal representation of states, staggered 6 year terms, preventing the Senate from originating funding bills by itself, and requiring supermajorities for things like impeachment trials and amendments. The problem we face now is that even *when* those requirements are met, we *now* have a bunch of people standing up saying that *even when* the hurdles are overcome, we need to meet *more* imaginary requirements and then justify this by saying, "well, the Senate needs to slow things down."

Quite frankly, when the Republicans manage to get a 48 seat minority using seats from small-population states, then they can talk about slowing things down even in the face of public sentiment in favor of change.

Posted by: constans | October 30, 2009 1:12 PM | Report abuse

"What Obama should do, Yeselson suggests, is pass a raft of ambitious economic policies that will address the root anxiety. But he can't"

You are trying to explain why Obama cannot pass such measures. But few things we have to keep in mind:

1. It is absolutely Obama's decision to start Health Care Reform in midst of Great Recession when economic recovery and financial regulations could have been a priority. Nothing to blame Congress here.

2. No matter what, Health Care Reforms are going to cost us lost ($900B Obama target) and potentially deficits, if not done correctly. So now blame it on these worry warts - 'you folks you do not understand why you are getting troubled by deficits - it is economy, stupid!'. Okay and we are supposed to accept this wisdom, no matter how much many of these folks resisted reckless ways of Bush Administration.

3. Next, what exact measure of Obama - to stimulate economy - has been rejected by this Congress? Meaning, is it not clear how lacking this Administration has been so far in addressing the core problem of Economy and Employment? It was all right to criticize Bush Administration that Iraq war sucks 'oxygen' out of White House and nothing gets done. But then it seems it is not okay to criticize that Obama Administration cannot deliver anything else, will not talk about deficits and tax reforms; until Health Care Reform is not done. Does not square.

4. In the Health Care Reform as well, apart from slamming Hiatt's of the world; why is this Administration squandering opportunities to do it in right way? Financing, iMAC and PO? If Obama is okay to sacrifice Rahm on the altar of Congress for bad PO advocated by Schumer; where is the prudence? Where is carefulness? Oh! because I am under paid; I get these thoughts...

Neither Obama Administration started with core economic and financial reforms (despite Recovery act which was surgery in those times), nor it is still interested in managing future entitlement commitments deriving from Health Care Reform in any better manner, fiscally.

Posted by: umesh409 | October 30, 2009 1:30 PM | Report abuse

There's a difference between a deliberative chamber and a deliberately obstructive chamber.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | October 30, 2009 1:35 PM | Report abuse

A couple points - the Senate was not "designed" with a majority vote requirement; that was adopted as part of the Rules of the Senate (and as has been pointed out, rarely exercised up until recently), but even then those examples are not accurate. The Senate "held" the country together before the Civil War by passing compromises on narrow majorities, and FDR's court-packing (which I would say would have been a good thing) was outright defeated.

And why exactly was not convicting Andrew Johnson (who WAS impeached by the House) a good thing?

Posted by: StevenAttewell | October 30, 2009 1:43 PM | Report abuse

Democrats do not have 60 votes in the Senate. Joe Lieberman is not a Democrat.

Posted by: tyronen | October 30, 2009 1:52 PM | Report abuse

Having lived in California for 30 years, I can tell you that it is Washington that has changed. Sacramento has always been dysfunctional. The federal government used to be the last refuge of enlightened democracy. Now we have nothing.

Posted by: bmull | October 30, 2009 1:58 PM | Report abuse

constans -- I did not mean to imply that it is okay for the Senate to obstruct the majority will. I just said it is an old problem, not a new one.

StevenAttewell -- Correct, Andrew Johnson was impeached by the House, just not removed from office by the Senate. My bad. But I do think it would have been a bad precedent to remove Johnson for purely political reasons, just as I think it would have been a bad precedent to pack the Supreme Court for purely political reasons. Both actions would have upset the system of checks and balances, even though I understand why Congress was frustrated with Johnson and FDR was frustrated with the Supreme Court.

The filibuster may not have been frequently exercised until recently, but it was always there as a threat. Furthermore, it may not have been exercised because it was not necessary -- the Southern Caucus could obstruct civil rights legislation, for example, long before a filibuster was necessary. Through seniority, they came to dominate most of the committee chairmanships, and they were masters of parliamentary procedure.

Posted by: tim37 | October 30, 2009 2:33 PM | Report abuse

So what are the odds on procedural reform? The Senate rules are not subject to filibuster, correct? Should this be something progressives organize around?

At the very least I think this fight shows the need for procedural reforms within the caucus. Far too many of our key leadership positions are held by people who will turn on the median Democratic position in an instant for personal gain. In particular, committee leadership should be decided by the party leader subject to member vote.

I would also love to see the Dems experiment with some kind of direct democracy for AT LEAST the majority/party leader position -- the party rank and file deserves a voice on that, and with current technology it should be possible.

Posted by: NS12345 | October 30, 2009 2:42 PM | Report abuse

*the Southern Caucus could obstruct civil rights legislation, for example, long before a filibuster was necessary. Through seniority, they came to dominate most of the committee chairmanships, and they were masters of parliamentary procedure.*

That's a very, very good point. Even then, though, when it became clear that the chairmen were actively stymieing the public will and majority of the Senate, LBJ would do stuff like bypass the recalcitrant committee chairmen in favor of someone who could bring legislation he wanted to the floor.

Posted by: constans | October 30, 2009 2:49 PM | Report abuse

Unemployment remains the central issue!

A so far ignored Human Investment Tax Credit (HITC) program can create up to 6 million jobs and launch perhaps 4 million entrepreneurs.

Download it free at:

The 1977 job tax credit program included a few of these incentives and generated almost one million jobs - 20% of the jobs created that year!

An updated version will soon be available entitled: A HUMAN DEVELOPMENT BASED ECONOMY VIA A SMALL BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM. Congress should fine-tune and pass this program without delay!

Another path to millions of jobs is described in the article: 5 Steps to Revive the Auto Industry and the Economy - on the same website.

It outlines revolutionary technology that opens paths to cars that need no fossil fuel or recharge. Advanced versions can later turn parked cars into power plants, able to sell power to the local utility.

The technology is not yet in the textbooks and will be greeted with extreme skepticism and disbelief.

However, independent laboratory validation of one remarkable breakthrough mentioned, Energy from Collapsing Hydrogen Orbits - ECHO, has taken place at Rowan University. A parallel development by another firm produced far more heat than can readily be explained by existing science, indicating a new source of energy is involved. The experiments should now be repeated at other laboratories. Efforts to encourage that step are under way in the UK and Norway.

The Rowan validation began the process of proving that new technology can allow a barrel of water to replace 200 barrels of oil!

Imagine the implications! Millions of well-paid new jobs as well as a major boost to automotive manufacturing, the backbone of the economy.

Posted by: magneticpower | October 30, 2009 3:04 PM | Report abuse

i don't think procedural reform can make that much difference - breaking the hold of the filibuster would be helpful but not an end all.

what would make a difference would be constitutional reform and considering a parliamentary approach.

the odds of that happening are very limited, so i am not optimistic about the future of good public policy. i think the california fear is very accurate.

Posted by: howard16 | October 30, 2009 3:12 PM | Report abuse

constans -- You said: "when it became clear that the chairmen were actively stymieing the public will and majority of the Senate, LBJ would do stuff like bypass the recalcitrant committee chairmen in favor of someone who could bring legislation he wanted to the floor."

That is how the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it out of committee, but the Southern Caucus then filibustered for 54 days until a weaker bill was introduced and attracted enough votes (73-27) to overcome the filibuster. But bypassing the committee was an uncommon tactic, and therefore the filibuster was usually not necessary.

Posted by: tim37 | October 30, 2009 3:27 PM | Report abuse

Tim37 - maybe its just me, but I actually think impeaching Johnson and reversing the Supreme Court would have been positive examples of checks and balances in action. In the first case, you had a president without any popular mandate trying to subvert the enforcement of laws passed by 2/3rds+ of Congress with an eye towards trying to maintain the oppression of millions of American citizens; in the second case, you had a Supreme Court trying to outlaw public policy that had been clearly called for and ratified by the public in three separate elections, in the midst of an economic crisis that threatened the rule of law itself.

Posted by: StevenAttewell | October 30, 2009 3:34 PM | Report abuse

howard16 - I agree with your assessment that California fear is right.

What I do not agree is the Parliamentary system. Having come from India, I know the difficulties there.

The issues seem to be here about Senate only and those are:
- replacing 'land representative' system by 'population representative' system;
- removing filibuster.

That would solve some major issues with Senate. But the remaining problems are more with the Politics and Money in this country.

For example, no scope for any new third party to come to rise. I am a Democrat but I am fed up with 'fiscal irresponsibility' train run by Pelosi and Reid and the way Obama allows that to happen.

So I believe, beyond the constitution and Congress structure; the issues are how the politics is run in this country.

Posted by: umesh409 | October 30, 2009 3:35 PM | Report abuse

"So what are the odds on procedural reform? The Senate rules are not subject to filibuster, correct?"

Motions to amend the rules of the Senate are privilaged meaning the motion to proceed to debate is automaticaly approved. The motion to cut off debate and vote would be subject to a filibuster; but also unneccessary since it takes 67 votes to change the rules.

"Should this be something progressives organize around?"

Knock yourself out.

BTW, be very skeptical regarding any analysis on this point, particulary regarding which party is more or less obstructionist. It varies by the personality of the Majority Leader. Filibusters are measured by the number of times the Leader files for cloture. Trent Lott used to schedule bills, call senators with "holds" and tell them if they were serious about the threat to filibuster (which is what a "hold" is), than come on down. Most were not, so no cloture motion was filed and the number of actual filibusters was smaller. Bill Frist would call Senators before scheduling a bill and if they indicated an intent to filibuster, he often simply didn't schedule the bill untill he had 60 votes. So again, no cloture motion and the number of recorded filibusters looked smaller. Harry Reid often announces a bill and files cloture at the same time, regardless of whether there are any holds. It makes the number of filibusters appear much higher but in reality they have been ablut the same for past 30 years regardless of who is in control. They are simply handled, and recorded differently.

Posted by: WoodbridgeVa1 | October 30, 2009 3:39 PM | Report abuse

StevenAttewell -- The question isn't whether we approve of Johnson's actions during Reconstruction or the Supreme Court's actions during the Great Depression. The question is whether the precedent would have changed the balance of power in the United States government in a way that would have had adverse effects thereafter. It's really an impossible question to answer, but I think civil rights advocates were glad that Brown vs. Board of Education could not be easily bypassed, and Clinton was glad that presidents could not be easily removed from office.

Posted by: tim37 | October 30, 2009 3:55 PM | Report abuse

The MSM is awash in this stuff right now - Obama bitter and brittle, Obama the farthest left of any president in history, Obama socializing vast swaths of the economy, Obama spending money like nobody ever before.

From Galston people are worried about gun control. What gun control? I don't think anyone, not even a democrat, has even brought up gun control. At least not in any meaningful way. People can still buy machine guns down at the flea market. I don't see that changing anytime soon.

But this deficit/debt mania going on...remember it cost Papa Bush the Presidency. Ross Perot and his debt charts got the most 3rd party votes since Anderson I think.

I talk to people every day about this. "OK you say Obama needs to stop adding to the debt. What will you cut? You can cut ALL DISCRETIONARY SPENDING and you will still have to cut the Military to nothing if you want to balance the budget. That's everything...the FBI, the FDA, the FAA, Customs, Homeland Security, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines... EVERYTHING! And you want to do that in the middle of the worst recession since the Great Depression?"

Posted by: luko | October 30, 2009 4:33 PM | Report abuse

I agree with you, Ezra. President Obama shouldn't cut the deficit: he should INCREASE it. Why should we not expect taxpayers to "contribute" to their fullest? There are unemployed among us who need our help! Why would we wish to turn our backs on citizens who refuse to work? Massachusetts needs our help! If a man elects not to work, why should we say he should? We should help, without question, without reason. Thought is not a process for evaluation --- our money should be communal.

Posted by: rmgregory | October 30, 2009 5:03 PM | Report abuse

"rapidly slicing the deficit down." Same phrase twice in one day? It does sound good.

Posted by: rmgregory | October 30, 2009 5:04 PM | Report abuse

Tim37 - but my point is that the actions of Johnson and the Supreme Court were themselves changing the balance of power in ways which also potentially could have adverse effects - i.e, if the president could not merely refuse to enforce laws passed by Congress but actively subvert them, and if the Supreme Court could reverse 2/3rds of the people in three separate national elections - not on behalf of an oppressed minority's civil rights, but on behalf of their own conception of good public policy.

Posted by: StevenAttewell | October 30, 2009 7:28 PM | Report abuse

Initially the filibuster was designed to keep the majority party from running roughshod over the minority party and give them a voice in shaping legislation. The procedure was not, however, intended to be a tool to obstruct legislation [especially when it imperils the future].

We can agree both Republican and the Democratic caucuses have taken advantage of the filibuster, but the difference are stark.

The number of times Republicans have used the filibuster is unprecedented. And without rhyme or reason use it to prevent an up-or-down vote -- needed to pass legislation -- from taking place and as a mechanism to delay confirmation hearings (for more than 200 nominees who have been waiting months on end to be denied or confirmed) as a result critical posts remain empty is more than irresponsible to highest degree, just short of criminal.

In contrast, generally when Democrats filibuster it is not without good reason: such as blocking nominees with extremely ultra-far-right ideological views outside mainstream thinking ... and more-often-than-not, as a last resort: after other procedural venues are exhausted and efforts to improve [Republican crafted] legislation proved futile. Therein lies the difference.

In the grande scheme of things political ideology at first glance may seem trivial, however, a closer look says otherwise. Rarely do we give a second thought to the fact that we are history in the making nor take into consideration how decisions based on a political ideology could potentially have grave consequential effects on tomorrow. Our ancestors bequeathed a responsibility to the next generation and every generation thereafter to leave the world a better place. Unless political ideology is set aside for the greater good, we will be the first, but not the last, generation to leave the world in worse shape.

While Republicans are heavily invested in and committed to seeing the democratic agenda fail, consequences be damned, America's future is being cast.

Therein every decision from this point forward, must be made with reverence to the future. Otherwise we lose sight of where we are going.

Posted by: serena1313 | November 1, 2009 11:13 AM | Report abuse

It´s not deficit paranoia. Take a look at a country that you know well: Brazil. They spent tons of money that didn´t had on the 70´s. They faced tough inflation that would only be killed by extremely high interest rates in the 90´s, even today payment of the debt is a big slice of the federal budget.

Posted by: andrekenji | November 1, 2009 9:34 PM | Report abuse

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