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Why public policy stinks in '09

It's the Senate:

It’s worth taking a moment to appreciate the fact that in a unicameral United States of America, we would now have passed both a comprehensive health care reform bill and also the most important piece of environmental legislation in the history of the world. Now that’s not the world we live in. Instead we live in a world where neither of those things has passed and where their prospects aren’t clear. But think back on this point the next time you hear someone say Obama is struggling with his agenda because he’s not centrist enough, or else that Obama is struggling with his agenda because he’s not left-wing enough.

Health-care reform passed with 50.5 percent of the vote in the House. Cap and trade passed with 50.8 percent. Neither margin would've been nearly enough in the Senate. Whether or not you think Nancy Pelosi had a couple more votes in her back pocket, it's pretty clear that she didn't have 41 more votes, which is what she would've needed to pass health-care reform if the House worked by the Senate's inane rules. Pelosi really does seem like a great speaker, but a lot of the ire directed at Harry Reid would be more appropriately aimed at the rules he labors under.

By Ezra Klein  |  November 9, 2009; 2:27 PM ET
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So what does it take to get most of these seemingly nonsensical rules changed? How? How long? Why or why not?

Posted by: cjo30080 | November 9, 2009 2:41 PM | Report abuse

(cueing up Endtroducing before reading this post)

Posted by: member8 | November 9, 2009 2:42 PM | Report abuse

cjo30080: I'm pretty sure most of the rules are in this thing called 'The Constitution'. In order to change it, you need a two-thirds vote from... The Senate.

Posted by: member8 | November 9, 2009 2:46 PM | Report abuse

Did I just catch a DJ Shadow reference in this post????

Posted by: erh1103 | November 9, 2009 2:52 PM | Report abuse

Reid doesn't get off that easily. How were the repiglicans able to pass stuff with much smaller majorities? Answer: party discipline, not allowing folks (I mean you, holy joe) to vote against the majority on procedural issues. The repiglicans extended that to substantive issues too, but I won't hold harry to that high standard. If he can't enforce enough discipline to make 60 votes worth something, then he has to go.

Posted by: srw3 | November 9, 2009 2:55 PM | Report abuse

i love people like srw3 and their notion that the senate majority leader has these enormous powers to enforce discipline! look, the most legendary discipline enforcer in senate history, lyndon baines johnson, couldn't get civil rights legislation through the senate. sometimes the votes aren't there.

the reason the republicans were able to pass stuff - and here i can understand that this might have escaped your notice - is that the republican party is more ideologically unified and contains more authoritarian personalities. the range from ben nelson to, say, dick durbin or chuck schumer is much, much wider than the range across the republicans in the senate.

in other words, objective circumstances are actually different between the two situations.

as for what can be done: what can be done is an all-out assault on the filibuster. that's what makes getting legislation through (and please, please srw3, don't move to the cliche of "let 'em filibuster." you do recall that filibusters worked in the '50s? they prevented civil rights legislation? even with lbj in charge of the senate?)

Posted by: howard16 | November 9, 2009 3:01 PM | Report abuse

--"Why public policy sucks in '09"--

Tin despots like Klein can't rule by fiat.

Which isn't to say that they're not slowly killing the country anyway.

Posted by: msoja | November 9, 2009 3:03 PM | Report abuse

Rules are enforced by people so your advice to focus on the rules and not Harry Reid is as nonsensical as the Senate rule to not mention other Senators by name or to allow anonymous holds.

Posted by: jamusco | November 9, 2009 3:04 PM | Report abuse

My only caveat to this is that in a unicameral legislature, the focus would all be on that one chamber. That means the forces against HCR would've been even more rabid Saturday night, as it would've been the last work on the bill. And the real legislative talent would all be in the one chamber. That's not all bad (imagine what Ted Kennedy could've accomplished with the House's rules), but it would mean the real obstructionists, McConnell, Coburn, etc.- would be in there, too.

Posted by: colby1983 | November 9, 2009 3:07 PM | Report abuse

cjo30080: I'm pretty sure most of the rules are in this thing called 'The Constitution'. In order to change it, you need a two-thirds vote from... The Senate.

Nope! Not in the Constitution. The Senate rules were written up by the Senate.

Posted by: steveh46 | November 9, 2009 3:11 PM | Report abuse

member8 @2:46 --

You're wrong!

My questions stand.

Posted by: cjo30080 | November 9, 2009 3:11 PM | Report abuse

The myth of Republicans effortlessly driving through their agenda does not stand up to close examination. From Welfare Reform to Economic Policy to Foriegn Policy, the Republicans compromised and worked with Democrats to avoid filibusters. Ted Kennedy wrote more of the No Child Left Behind bill than Bush did. Charlie Rangle walked out of the 2001 Tax Bill Conference Committee laughing that Republicans in the Senate had made concessions to Olympia Snowe that he would never have dared ask for and gutted thier own bill in the process (phase ins were a disaster). Bill Frist left office with a laundry list of more that 100 bills that he never even tried to bring to the floor because there were "only 53 - 57 Yes" votes. Republicans had to painfully pass 4 separate bills between 2001 and 2006 to implement their tax policy and most of it expires in 2011.

Bottom line, you may not like the 60 vote hurdle now but you loved it for 12 years. What goes around comes around. Get used to it.

Posted by: WoodbridgeVa1 | November 9, 2009 3:15 PM | Report abuse

Reid knew how the GOP would act towards Obama's agenda and he didn't do a damn thing to try to make the Senate rules more sane by for instance requiring a simple majority for cloture. So yeah I blame him and the other 58 Democrats (Lieberman is for all intents and purposes a Republican) who didn't lift a finger to get rid of the filibuster because they want to have it available for themselves many years in the future when they are in the minority again.

Posted by: redwards95 | November 9, 2009 3:15 PM | Report abuse

@howard16 Thank you for the LOVE... I think the political distance between Jim Demint and Olympia Snow is certainly within 20% of the distance between Ben Nelson and Dick Durbin. And I am NOT suggesting that there be ideological cohesiveness in the actual substantive votes on policy. I say that there are ways to discipline caucus members who obstruct their own leadership's agenda through procedural votes. And as for LBJ, civil rights legislation was a much harder lift for him because the dixiecrats, for whom opposition to civil rights was the predominant issue of their political lives, were a large part of his senate majority. The healthcare reform obstructors are less than 10% of the Dem caucus. So the analogy falls flat on its face.

Posted by: srw3 | November 9, 2009 3:21 PM | Report abuse

Abolishing the senate is extremely hard, but abolishing the filibuster, which is the bulk of the problem, takes only 51 senators and the VP, and could be done in weeks.

Paul Krugman showed concern about the country becoming Californiafied in his column today, but he hasn't come out for abolishing the filibuster.

If he came forward for that, that would really help the cause. Once the thinkers, experts, and opinion leaders on the Democratic side reach consensus for this it will greatly increase the persuasion and pressure on the Democratic senators to act, and we will have a real chance. Free trade is a good example of the strong persuasion and pressure respected experts can bring on Democratic politicians.

You can get Paul Krugman's ear Ezra. Perhaps you can ask him if he will, at the strategic time, come out for abolishing the filibuster. And if not, why not.

For more on this, please see:

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | November 9, 2009 3:23 PM | Report abuse

I'd appreciate it if people who are coming out against the filibuster would say whether they were equally appalled by it when the republicans had control. Personally I have the same stance- that the filibuster is important for the minority to prolong debate so the majority can't ram something unpopular through before people have time to know whats happening. But eventually the bar for cloture gets lower and lower. I just have the feeling that all the people who know think the filibuster is a threat to democracy probably had a different stance when the republicans were in power.

Posted by: spotatl | November 9, 2009 3:46 PM | Report abuse

LOL. Does it suck, or does it stink, Klein?

Will Wilkinson says your "procedural whingeing is just stupid", which doesn't really differentiate it much from the bulk of your posts.

Posted by: msoja | November 9, 2009 4:28 PM | Report abuse

i love all the liberal whining. Where was it when Republicans had majorities in each branch and still had to deal with the filabuster??? Why can't they just pull a Mass. and adjust the laws to suit their whims as they go?

Posted by: visionbrkr | November 9, 2009 5:00 PM | Report abuse

It is hard to pass legislation for a very good reason. Do we really want a country where 50% + 1 can impose thier will on 50% - 1?

Posted by: kingstu01 | November 9, 2009 5:47 PM | Report abuse

--"Do we really want a country where 50% + 1 can impose thier will on 50% - 1?"--

Klein does. When progressives are in power.

Posted by: msoja | November 9, 2009 6:16 PM | Report abuse

srw3, i appreciate that you want to live in a better world; sadly, in this one, your little statistical games mean nothing.

in this world, for example, there is no meaningful voting difference between olympia snowe and jim demint, regardless of the difference in style and outlook.

in this world, the voting distance between ben nelson and dick durbin is much, much larger.

in this world, there are not methods to discipline members: whatever gives you that silly idea? the members believe next time it could be them, and they are not willing to extend that kind of discipline: you can't ask the majority leader, a position that requires, you know, the support of the majority, to be tougher than the caucus is willing to be.

in this world, lbj had the disadvantage of dixiecrats, but he had the advantage of northern liberal republicans who don't exist anymore either: the point is that even the master lbj couldn't force through legislation for which the votes weren't there, so why should you assume that reid has more power?

i know we'd all like it better if there were merely a matter of harry reid being "tougher," but dumbass thinking like that on the part of george bush and the gop got us to the current mess. sometimes, being tougher just gets you stuck waist deep in the big muddy and you have to work around.

i'd love a better bill: the votes aren't there for it, and it's not because of "discipline" not being enforced....

Posted by: howard16 | November 9, 2009 8:39 PM | Report abuse

"It’s worth taking a moment to appreciate the fact that in a unicameral United States of America, we would now have passed ..."

Better yet, let's just have a single party like China! If efficiency in deciding things is the only relevant measure, why stop halfway?

Ezra might as well channel Thomas Friedman: "One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages."

And of course Ezra, like progressives everywhere, is the Very Essence of Enlightened. I foresee great things once the Dictatorship of the Enlightened Ones is accomplished. Great tax bills and great new bureaucracies are only the beginning.

Posted by: enoriverbend | November 10, 2009 5:51 PM | Report abuse

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