What happens when Congress fails
In June 2009, the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill passed the House of Representatives with a slim majority. In July 2010, Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, announced that the Senate couldn't find a supermajority for a companion piece of legislation. Cap-and-trade was dead.
But regulations to reduce carbon emissions are alive and well. The Environmental Protection Agency can attack carbon as a pollutant, and the Obama administration's announcement that efforts to hamstring the EPA will be vetoed suggests that they mean to do exactly that.
This is, more often than people realize, the end game of the filibuster: It's not that the issue is tabled, but that it is handed over to the executive branch, or an independent agency, or the courts. It is handed over, in other words, to an institution free from the filibuster.
The Federal Reserve took a larger-than-anticipated role in the financial rescue because Congress couldn't do everything it needed to do, and if the economy can't pull out of its funk, the Federal Reserve is going to step in and take unprecedentedly large steps to stimulate the economy. One of the health-care bill's signal achievements was creating the Independent Payment Advisory Board, which was designed to reduce congressional authority over Medicare. The deficit conversation has been offloaded to a fiscal commission formed by the executive branch. The EPA will handle carbon emissions.
All of this reduces accountability and, in may cases, leads to bad policy, as these alternative institutions and procedures don't have the flexibility and power of the normal congressional process. But it's what happens when the majority wants to act but is blocked by a supermajority requirement: They might not be able to pass a law through Congress, but they can allow another institution or agency to make policy on their behalf.
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