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Minority rules

Steve Pearlstein really goes to town on bipartisanship today:

The most common misconception is that bipartisanship means finding common ground and focusing on the things most everyone agrees on. In reality, that turns out to be a pretty small set of ideas and proposals that, taken together, would not address the major challenges before us. Certainly, that is the obvious place to begin, and it would be an improvement over the current gridlock, but it won't add up to effective governance.

After all, if the only things the party in power can accomplish are those that the minority power can agree with, then what is the point of having an election? No matter which side won a majority, "common ground" -- the things they all agree on -- would still be the same.

Word. But I'm a bit less taken with his belief that the "dynamic is unlikely to change until the voters get so disgusted that they are willing to indiscriminately turn out all incumbents, irrespective of party and ideology." We're there, and have been for some time. The House has been more competitive in the past decade than in the four decades that preceded it. Every couple of years, the voters toss the majority party out of office. Americans hate how Washington works, and they keep trying to punish the people in charge.

But that just rewards the scoundrels. The people in charge aren't in charge of this. What Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole proved was that minority could make the people angry at Washington if it could bring all business to a halt and deafen voters with the partisan bickering. If Americans were dedicated students of Congress, they might respond by punishing the people who're responsible for poisoning the process. But only a quarter of Americans can identify 60 votes as the number needed to break a filibuster. Another 25 percent think it's 51 votes, and the rest don't really know. When people are angry at Washington, they do the logical thing and take it out on the folks who're putatively running the place.

That congressional rules give the minority the power to decide the success of the majority's agenda is so unintuitive that it's pretty much impossible to run elections based off the concept. Even when the voters do turn on incumbents, the majority of the incumbents come from whichever party holds the gavel, so the election is looks like a repudiation of the majority. Voting against Washington looks functionally the same as voting against the party in power, and that's why the minority acts the way it does, and will continue until it loses these tools.

By Ezra Klein  |  February 5, 2010; 9:13 AM ET
Categories:  Congress  
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Next: What is a 'hold'?


Introducing "the common good," a completely foreign concept to those obsessed with "the greater good." Observe how they struggle to wrap their minds around it.

Posted by: whoisjohngaltcom | February 5, 2010 9:19 AM | Report abuse

I've recently been confused by conservatives that whine about how Dems just don't listen to them, as if "compromise" involves dropping the Democratic agenda to court Republican votes in passing essentially Republican bills. In my mind "compromise" for legislation involves a few members of the minority party voting for legislation in exchange for the inclusion of a few pet projects (say, tax cuts in the stimulus plan, or tort reform in HCR). Unfortunately, complete party discipline kind of makes this impossible.

Posted by: MosBen | February 5, 2010 9:30 AM | Report abuse

Again, this dynamic (I'd call it pathology) has been crystal-clear for months now, and Obama and the Dems have been too complacent about ramming through the policies they campaigned on, and that won them a huge governing majority.

Posted by: scarlota | February 5, 2010 9:30 AM | Report abuse

I've been thinking about all these polls lately that show how little the American people know about the way government works. It's led me to the idea that the White House (or whichever government body makes most sense) should record a series of 5-10 minute videos about how the government works in the modern US. Do a video on how a bill works its way, generally, through the Congress. Do a video on the history of the filibuster versus its modern use. Do a video on the electoral college. Do a video on the CBO. End up with 50-100 videos that explain in an easy to understand way how the government works, or doesn't, to serve the American people. Don't make them partisan. Talk about how the filibuster allows minority parties to stop legislation, not the Republicans.

Then put them all over the internet. Obviously, have a government web site that keeps them all organized, but put them on You Tube, on Hulu, hell, get PBS to do a series involving the videos. If you can get the President to do these videos, great. If not, maybe Bill Clinton. If you don't want a polarizing figure, get someone the public doesn't know, like a WH intern with some charisma or something. Whatever. Promote the hell out of them.

Then, when Obama's making stump speeches, talking about HCR, refer people to the videos when he uses a term or concept that people don't understand.

However you do it, it's untenable to have a system that doesn't work with a populace that doesn't understand how or why it doesn't work. We'll never get out of this quagmire until people can identify where we're broken.

Posted by: MosBen | February 5, 2010 9:42 AM | Report abuse

Americans who know who voted for an anti-gridlock form of the ObamaCare Bill with out the public vetting of every provission of that Bill will find him/herself challenged by the People. And if we can get rid of Democrats then we can get rid of Republicans who are Liberals. Got that?

Posted by: jackolantyrn356 | February 5, 2010 9:48 AM | Report abuse

With the current abuse of the filibuster, why doesn't the Senate reinstitute the rules requiring Senators to actually filibuster? Would Republicans filibuster every bill if they had to get up there and actually talk for hours, forego bathroom breaks and sleep to stop a bill? I don't think so.

Posted by: drmondo | February 5, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

drmondo, wouldn't instituting the old rules be equally as hard as getting rid of it altogether? Actually, that's a good question for people like Ezra and MattY that support the elimination of the filibuster (I do to, but don't have a good answer): Is elimination of the filibuster preferable to instituting the old rules and why?

Posted by: MosBen | February 5, 2010 11:17 AM | Report abuse

So far Democrats have shown they are willing to make tremendous compromise in order to win other Democrats.

Democrats haven't even ever tried to compromise enough to get a single Republican. Half of the Democrat caucus is complaining and moaning about compromises and payoffs that have been make just to win over fellow caucus members.

So far minority members haven't ever figured into the healthcare policy equation because zealots on the extreme left refuse to make any single compromise that would get them on board. They have a tough time winning over their own members and they cry every step of the way.

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | February 5, 2010 2:19 PM | Report abuse

Democrats don't even have the guts to directly tell the American public that they are seeking legislation that will eventually transform into Single Payer.

They want it both ways. They want to be padded on the back by the right for resisting Single-payer style socialized medicine, and at the same time padded on the back by the left for their Great Leap Forward to socialism.

Such duplicity has led to monolithic resistance not only by Republicans, but moderate Democrats who aren't so fond of Mao.

Joe Lieberman might have voted for the original Public Option legislation if the whole thing weren't so openly praised by Single-Payer stalwarts who openly confessed that this was the most achievable path for their radical agenda to fundamentally transform USA as we know it.

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | February 5, 2010 2:24 PM | Report abuse

FastEddie0007, you think it's most likely that in the last year Republicans have offered reasonable compromises on HCR which would not undermine the underlying bill, but that Democrats either haven't talked to them seriously about compromise or just haven't been willing to do so? More likely than the argument that Republicans have decided that it will be electorally favorable to them to stop all legislation important to the President from passing and therefore have never made honest efforts at compromise?

That's just not very convincing. I mean, what was Max Baucus' painfully slow process about if not taking Republican ideas and incorporating them into the bill or trying to find areas of compromise? His whole effort was to secure the votes of a couple moderates and perhaps his friend Grassley. Bipartisanship was so fetishized in 2009 that a Republican senator could have got some huge concessions if they guaranteed their vote.

Posted by: MosBen | February 5, 2010 2:29 PM | Report abuse

Democrats were not willing to craft any healthcare reform bill that didn't ultimately transfer the responsibility for escalating healthcare costs firmly onto the backs of the tax payer.

We are supposed to take on faith the CBO's estimation that costs will go down and thus not worry about this switch of liability...but then again the CBO also predicted that Medicare would always be solvent.

On top of that we have the most ferocious advocates of Obama's plans on YouTube touting to cheering crowds how they'll lead us to Single-Payer.

On top of that we have Obama openly talking about government rationing healthcare and pointing out that his grandmother's hip surgery probably an unsustainable model (though of course HE WOULD PAY OUT-OF-POCKET for it)....

And you expected Republicans to climb on board that polarizing partisan freight train?

You guys may have just opened your eyes recently, but Republican lawmakers have had their eyes open for a long time....

PS: Thanks for engaging in respectful debate with me!

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | February 5, 2010 3:20 PM | Report abuse

If Democrats want to begin to be taken seriously by Republicans, it all starts with lifting the ban that prohibits doctors who participate in government-regulated services to provide OUT-OF-POCKET SERVICES....the current bill bans any doctor providing an OUT-OF-POCKET SERVICE FOR TWO YEARS!!!!

Thus only doctors who make their entire living out of the federal exchange can give your dying grandmother her hip surgery!!!!


The biggest FORK IN THE ROAD between you federal healthcare radicals and us in the mainstream middle class opposition is the insistence by OBAMA/PELOSI that any doctors participating in their new federal system be banned from offering out-of-pocket services.

Only doctors who choose to make their entire living out of the new federal system can offer out-of-pocket services.

This means a powerfully connected politician like Barack Obama can buy hip surgery for his dying grandmother if he chooses, but all of us middle class schmucks will be dead-out-of-luck.


Posted by: FastEddieO007 | February 5, 2010 3:24 PM | Report abuse

Re "That congressional rules give the minority the power to decide the success of the majority's agenda is so unintuitive that it's pretty much impossible to run elections based off the concept."

What about Truman's campaign against the "do-nothing Congress"? See Fallows today on "Turnip Day"...

Posted by: sprung4 | February 5, 2010 3:36 PM | Report abuse


Another among many fantastic, important, lucid posts.

I think this is a good point to give my comments on yesterday's Lessig column. He argues that strong campaign finance reform is more important than ending the filibuster. It may be; it's absolutely crucial to stop, or tremendously minimize, corporate de facto bribery, but:

If you want positive change, it's crucial to keep in mind that it's far far easier to pass a great increase in public campaign finance and other reforms if only 50 votes (plus the V.P.) are needed, than if 60 are needed. The Republicans will always vote as a block against this – they're the party of moneyed interests – making passage virtually impossible if 60 votes are required. Ending the filibuster, which can be done with just 50 determined senators and the V.P., is just a necessary first step if we want to have strong campaign finance reform anytime soon, if we don't want to wait 50 to 100 years until skill, luck, and circumstances are just right that we can get it by Republicans armed with the filibuster.

A constitutional convention, which Lessig recommends, is a way to bypass Congress, but with 2/3rds of the states required it's not going to happen soon. But abolishing the filibuster could happen anytime, and it's important that it happen anyway, even if we did get strong campaign finance reform.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | February 5, 2010 4:25 PM | Report abuse

"only a quarter of Americans can identify 60 votes as the number needed to break a filibuster. Another 25 percent think it's 51 votes, and the rest don't really know"

And on election day Acorn loads 'em all up on buses and takes them to the polls to vote. How could anything go wrong?

Posted by: whoisjohngaltcom | February 5, 2010 4:56 PM | Report abuse

To dovetail on RichardHSerlin's comments:

I read and viewed Lessig, too, and agree with him, but would take an even more radical (therefore stuck in the wishful thinking realm) approach to the problem. If I had a magic wand, I would:

First, eliminate all "parties" and, therefore, "partisanship" and a good deal of "politics as usual", in one fell swoop. Parties have become an anachronism. There's such a broad range in each category, you can't tell "what kind of" Democrat/Republican someone is simply by their party-dentification anymore.

Second, reform the entire campaign process, not just campaign "finance".

Roughly, it would look something like this:

1. Eliminate all "parties" and "party identification". Candidates would be judged as "individuals" on the basis of their previous experience, their positions on a slate of issues (the same for all candidates), and past voting records (where applicable). Hopefully, this would result in Congressional representatives working together, clustering around common interests on a particular issue, rather than "party lines".

2. Elections would be re-claimed by the public: removed from the "moneyed interests" realm and positioned squarely where it should be, in the hands of the public. Elections would be conducted like a "hiring process", on a national scale. We, the people, would be (are supposed to be) the hiring authority. For example:

A. All voters would pay a minimal, annual "elections" flat tax/flat fee (same fee for all, all votes are equal). This would be the total money available for the election process. Individual candidates would not raise money.

B. Candidates' resumes, prior experience, and voting records, if applicable, would be posted and publicized via internet, newspapers, direct mailers. The Public would learn where to go to obtain info/learn about the candidates.

C. Candidates would have regularly scheduled appearances on public television/public radio throughout the year leading up to the election to introduce themselves and their positions on issues. Perhaps there would be an interviewer ... all candidates would be asked the same questions. Candidates would be allowed to talk about themselves only (not the other candidates). And that's it!!

D. There would be no stumping on the campaign trail, no townhalls, no campaign ads, and no "debates" (in their current form).

I know it sounds like heresy, but I assure you I'm not crazy; just extremely frustrated and imagining how things might be. I welcome all responses and feedback. Thanks.

Posted by: onewing1 | February 5, 2010 6:40 PM | Report abuse

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