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By their votes, you shall know them

Reihan Salam's effort to explain how you can know congressional Republicans believe something they don't mention publicly or support legislatively gets at the heart of one of D.C.'s most pernicious illusions: The idea that we should worry about what congresspeople believe in their heart of hearts, as opposed to what they're willing to vote for at this time.

Salam uses congressional Democrats in 2005 as an analogy: "The fact that congressional Democrats in 2005 didn't offer alternative legislative language for Social Security reform does not mean that all congressional Democrats proposed some kind of reform for Social Security," he says. But this is a distinction without a difference, at least if you were sitting around in 2005 asking "what sort of Social Security reform will Democrats partner with Republicans to pass?" They wouldn't partner with Republicans on anything. What they believed was irrelevant, because that belief was not strong enough to govern what they would do.

I've said many times that you cannot construct a coherent policy model for the Republican Party's policies over the past two years. Senators and congressmen who supported John Chaffee's 1993 health-care bill, Mitt Romney's reforms in Massachusetts and Medicare Part D could not have been lockstep against the Affordable Care Act, and certainly not on budgetary grounds. Legislators who voted for the Bush tax cuts and now want to extend them without offsets cannot credibly argue that the deficit can't bear $30 billion in further stimulus.

But if you created a model based on "what position would a person take if they wanted to help their party win the next election," you'd find your model almost perfectly accurate. And when you take that model in which policy barely matters and partisan incentives govern behavior and add the filibuster into it, you understand why the Senate is so dangerously broken.

The Republican Party does not currently exist as an institution interested in working with Democrats to shape policy, just as the Democratic Party in 2005 did not exist as an institution interested in working with Republicans to shape policy. Pundits and commentators like to ignore this fact as we like to write pieces about how if Congress followed our policy preferences somewhat more closely, it would surely be more successful. That's what Salam was doing in his original post, in which he said there was a conservative consensus that included a large number of lawmakers behind a conditional version of state and local aid. But there isn't. There's a Republican consensus in favor of winning the next election and a Republican consensus that winning the next election means obstructing Democratic accomplishments and that, and not policy disagreement, is the central operating reality in the United States Congress.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 5, 2010; 9:53 AM ET
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As much as I'm a fan of Matt Yglesias, I wonder how true his contention is that alternating majoritarian governments will, over time of course, produce policy that is as bipartisan as the hallowed 1960s and 70s.

Posted by: imartin1 | August 5, 2010 10:07 AM | Report abuse

"The Republican Party does not currently exist as an institution interested in working with Democrats to shape policy, just as the Democratic Party in 2005 did not exist as an institution interested in working with Republicans to shape policy."

Whoa, false equivalence alarm! Remember immigration reform? Bankruptcy reform? There were many areas in which democrats were willing to work with republicans to shape policy in the 109th Congress -- Social Security was different, and democrats responded to it much the same way republicans would respond to a gun control law offered now. The simple fact is that democrats in 2005 were willing to work with republicans in some areas and bipartisan legislation did move, in sharp contrast to today.

Posted by: dbfclark | August 5, 2010 10:19 AM | Report abuse

You forgot to mention that the current republican consensus is also to strangle any recovery for the American economy--outside of their corporate paymasters on Wall Street--in order to reap votes for themselves, the very same party and many of the same people who dug us into this hole in the first place. Their strategic goal is to further impoverish average Americans misled by their 24-hour propaganda outlet known as Fox News--a misnomer of a name that reveals republicans' predilection for mendacity even in dissimulation when they name their nefarious and coordinated projects--in order to ride the confusion, anxiety and desperation back into power. We've seen the triumph of repressive regimes through exploiting the fears they themselves have confabulated many times in history. I won't the mention the most obvious example from the century just past.

Posted by: douglasblee | August 5, 2010 10:45 AM | Report abuse

"I've said many times that you cannot construct a coherent policy model for the Republican Party's policies over the past two years."

The policy model is to obstruct. Period. DeMint was quite candid about 'Waterloo' and the like.

Posted by: AMviennaVA | August 5, 2010 11:00 AM | Report abuse

Duh! That Republicans will take any policy stand that will block Democrats and that they think will help their elections is so "duh" I can't believe it still has to be talked about. Nevertheless some people still haven't gotten that message so might as well keep reminding them.

Posted by: TomCantlon | August 5, 2010 11:19 AM | Report abuse

Shhh... you can't say that here. That would mean that Representatives are... *gulp*... cynical!

Posted by: KBfromNC | August 5, 2010 11:20 AM | Report abuse

As Denny Green would say, "They are who we thought they were!"

Posted by: mschol17 | August 5, 2010 11:33 AM | Report abuse

Democrats have proceeded with their legislative agenda as a means for constructing an argument for "Republican obstruction".

How else can you explain the procedures that Anthony "the" Weiner and Pelosi "the" Nancy used in order to suddenly somehow require a House bill to suddenly need 2/3rds support of votes in the House of Representatives to get passed....I'm referring to passage of healthcare benefits to the heroes of 9-11.

Do Democrats want it to fail?!? Why in the world would they put procedures in place to make passage of a bill more difficult than it has to be?

And then Anthony Weiner has a tirade on teh floor......Democrats are apparently more interested in theatrics than actual legislation that might help someone.

Its always about their ego!!!

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | August 5, 2010 11:48 AM | Report abuse

That does not explain why the GOP voted in lockstep against the bill, now does it Fast Eddie?

Posted by: cmccauley60 | August 5, 2010 12:46 PM | Report abuse

dbfclark nails it -- false equivalence indeed. You're completely right about the Republicans, of course. But the Dems in 2005 took a very particular stand on social security -- there is no crisis, though minor tweaks may be needed down the road, but there's plenty in the trust fund, those manufacturing a crisis are just engaged in the never-ending battle to dismantle social security, working with them to "address the crisis" just means working with them to help the dismantling. This non-cooperation was very specific to social security, and for very good reasons. There was no overall obstruction effort equivalent to what the Republicans are now engaged in.

Why can't the truth be spoken about what Republicans are doing without having to make it more palatable to various Powers That Be by trying to pretend equivalence?

Posted by: kenm3 | August 5, 2010 12:54 PM | Report abuse

So, the path through Congress is paved with good intentions ... but only for the party?

Posted by: tomcammarata | August 5, 2010 2:08 PM | Report abuse

Ezra: "But this is a distinction without a difference, at least if you were sitting around in 2005 asking "what sort of Social Security reform will Democrats partner with Republicans to pass?" They wouldn't partner with Republicans on anything."

The Republicans' position on Social Security was that (1) the projected shortfall should be fixed, and (2) Social Security should be privatized. The Democratic leadership said that was that it was willing to partner with Republicans to address the former as long as Republicans agreed that privatization would not be included in the deal. It is possible that Democrats were counting on Republicans rejecting this offer, but the simplest hypothesis is that the Democratic offer was sincere.

The current situation is different because Republican opposition is not so much about policy differences as it is about opposing Obama no matter what Obama does. (A case in point is the deficit commission, which Republicans supported until Obama came out in support of it.) Of course Democrats were influenced by electoral politics in 2005, but they didn't have an internal consensus that the best way to win elections was to become the party of "no".

Posted by: KennethAlmquist | August 5, 2010 2:16 PM | Report abuse

I'll jump on the false equivalence train. There were certainly areas where the dems obstructed, but I think most of the legislative obstruction was based on pretty easily understood principles. Add to that the many pieces of legislation that they did work on, and I don't think there's much similarity between the parties over the last few years. The dems just haven't been as lockstep, though I suspect that will change tthe next time they're in the minority.

Posted by: MosBen | August 5, 2010 2:17 PM | Report abuse

FastEddie: "Why in the world would they put procedures in place to make passage of a bill more difficult than it has to be?"

FastEddie, I don't think you've been following what's been going on in Congress. Republicans have been using procedure to force votes on amendments on all sorts of issues fundamentally unrelated or only minimally related to the substance of the bill to provide fodder for 30-second attack ads going into the election. It's not that they object to the substance of the bill; it's to try to embarrass and discredit the majority even when they really agree essentially with what the majority is doing.

That's obstructionism, and the only way Democrats could get around it was by using a procedure requiring the 2/3 majority. Weiner's tirade was precisely about this obstructionism, not about his ego: it was about the many Republicans who voted "no" on the basis of the supposed procedural bypass that they themselves engendered instead of voting on the merits of the bill.

So yes, there are valid reasons for the procedural route the Democrats took, if you're paying attention instead of just assuming the worst.

Posted by: dasimon | August 5, 2010 6:52 PM | Report abuse

The one distinction worth mentioning, is that in 2005 the GOP clearly was not interested in *having* democratic input, to the point of playing high school clique games with moving conference rooms et al.

I have less sympathy with a minority party that has been more that generously invited to shape policy but whose response to not getting *everything* they want is to upend the table and scream like spoiled children.

Of course, like most spoiled children, they do it because it usually works for them. How many stories since the election have we heard about how it takes 60 votes to pass anything in the Senate as if that's just the way things are; it's only been in the last four - six months that the Republican Parties copious use of filibusters has even gotten media attention.

Posted by: Jonnan | August 5, 2010 6:58 PM | Report abuse

I think you are much to kind to Salam. I would say the view of most Democrats in congress in 2005 was that the best plausible outcome for social security was no change. They didn't propose a reform. They got the status quo. Their official actions fit the theory that they thought that the best outcome they could hope for was the status quo. My guess is that they got what they wanted.

This view is supported by the fact that, when they won the Presidency and majorities in both houses, they proposed no reform of social security.

Salam's position seems to be that he knows what the Democrats really wanted in 2005 and what Republicans want now. Also, if Republicans had majorities in both houses and the White House, they still wouldn't do what Salam knows they want to do.

However, it is very important that they want to do it and he knows that they do, because of ESP or something.

If my sole aim were to make Salam look like a total fool, I couldn't have done half as good a job as Salam. The Democrats like social security the way it is. They will deal with problems later *if* they arise (Obama was excoriated by Democratic bloggers for even mentioning social security reform). Working on Salam's analogy, I conclude that, if it is valid, Republicans think it would be just fine if there were massive layoffs of teachers.

And he is supposed to be a relatively intelligent and thoughtful conservative.

Posted by: rjw88 | August 5, 2010 8:29 PM | Report abuse

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Posted by: kristycrew | August 6, 2010 5:31 AM | Report abuse

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