Monday, February 01, 2010

Why "bipartisanship" won't work - Facing the underlying reality (James Fallows)

Some discussions are very illuminating, even though they mostly repeat the obvious, when what should be obvious is either willfully ignored or, for some reason, is not obvious to everyone. The analysis presented below by James Fallows, mostly quoted from a correspondent, falls in that category. It starts with some basic facts of life about current American politics, and about the dynamics of the US Congress in particular, that many people would rather not acknowledge, but which we really need to face up to. And it then explains the implications clearly and cogently. It's important and worth reading carefully.

Why is our political system is so dysfunctional right now, why was 2009 a year so dominated by legislative gridlock, and why are most of the popular suggestions for improving the situation fatuous and superficial (when they're not just partisan propaganda)? By itself this analysis doesn't provide the whole answer. But any discussion that ignores, or fails to grasp, this dimension of the situation can't be taken seriously.

You should read the piece in full, but this opening anecdote cuts to the heart of the matter:
I got this note from someone with many decades' experience in national politics, about a discussion between two Congressmen over details of the stimulus bill:

"GOP member: 'I'd like this in the bill.'
"Dem member response: 'If we put it in, will you vote for the bill?'
"GOP member: 'You know I can't vote for the bill.'
"Dem member: 'Then why should we put it in the bill?'
"I witnessed this myself."
Fallows's correspondent then goes on to explain the larger point of this exchange and in the process explains, as Fallows puts it, "a basic structural reality that has escaped most recent analysis of the 'bipartisanship' challenge." Some highlights (with the emphases added by Fallows):
[....] I'm astonished every pundit doesn't already get it, but many either don't or seem willfully to ignore it.

In our system, if the minority party can create and enforce party discipline (which has never really been done before, but which the GOP has now accomplished), then OF COURSE there can be no 'bipartisanship' on major legislative matters, in the sense of (1) the minority adding provisions to legislation as the majority compromises with them, and (2) at least some minority party members then voting with the majority.

In a parliamentary system, the minority party is not involved in helping write or voting for major legislation either. If you think about it, and as that exchange I quoted shows, that sort of 'bipartisanship' really can't happen in a parliamentary system on issues where the minority party has the power to tell its members to boycott the majority's major bills on final passage.

Bipartisanship in the American sense means compromising on legislation so that a sufficient number of members of Congress from BOTH parties will support it, even if (as is typically the case) a few majority party members defect and most minority party members don't join. Bipartisanship consists of getting ENOUGH members of the minority party to join the (incomplete) majority in voting for major legislation. It can't happen if the minority party members vote as a block against major legislation. And that can happen only if the minority party has the ability to discipline its ranks so that none join the majority, which is the unprecedented situation we've got in Congress today.
That's the heart of the matter. Over the past few decades, the Congressional Republicans--but not the Democrats--have come closer to acting like a parliamentary party than any party in any previous period of American history. Fallows's correspondent goes on to explain, briefly and perceptively, some of the mechanisms by which this unprecedented degree of party discipline is maintained. He then observes:
I've missed almost all the punditry this past week... but what I've seen seems almost like a lot of misleading fluff designed to fill the void that should follow an understanding of the foregoing, at least on the subject of 'why no bipartisanship?' There's really nothing more to be said about "why no bipartisanship," once one recognizes the GOP party discipline. On this issue, it's absolutely astounding to blame Obama or even the Congressional leadership (although Pelosi and Reid leave much to be desired otherwise). It's doubly astounding that the GOP did it once before, less perfectly, but with a very large reward for bad behavior in the form of the 1994 mid-term elections. Yet no one calls them on it effectively, and bad behavior seems about to be rewarded again...
Correct. A crucial factor, of course, is that the US Senate (unlike parliamentary legislatures) no longer operates by majority rule, even for 'normal' purposes. Instead, the use of the filibuster and other obstructionist procedural devices has also become routine and promiscuous to a degree unprecedented in American history.



My impression is that this key fact is not widely known or appreciated. Somehow, the Congressional Republicans aren't getting called on that either.

Fallows draws some appropriate conclusions:
[W]e see that the US now has the drawbacks of a parliamentary system -- absolute party-line voting by the opposition, for instance -- without any of the advantages, from comparable solidarity among the governing party to the principle of "majority rules." If Democrats could find a way to talk about structural issues -- if everyone can find a way to talk about them -- that would be at least a step. And the Dems could talk about the simple impossibility of governing when the opposition is committed to "No" as a bloc.
I'm not holding my breath. Meanwhile, read the whole thing (below).

--Jeff Weintraub

UPDATE 2/2/2010: The next day, Fallows's correspondent followed up with some further clarification. You can read his follow-up below, but here are some highlights:
I'm surprised at the number of people who say, in effect, 'But lots of bills have passed with Republican votes this year.'

That's the reason to keep including (as your blog post did) the word "major" in front of "legislation." In a parliamentary system, the party does not make EVERY vote into one of required lock-step voting - only major votes. [....] What the GOP has got going is a three-line whip notice on major legislation. The Recovery Act passed the House without a single GOP vote - not even one! [....]
But I think this is even more interesting and illuminating:
A closely related development fascinates and infuriates me, partly re the GOP and partly re the press. In the Senate, the GOP votes against cloture. But when the Dems finally manage to get the 60 votes, lots of GOP senators typically vote for the bill on final passage. "What's up with THAT?" I've asked several times. In the past, if you opposed a bill getting to a vote on the floor, typically (admittedly not always) you would also oppose it IN the vote on the floor. That was the only reason to oppose it getting to the floor - because you opposed it! The answer, I've been told several times (by Democratic staffers, who don't seem at all surprised or perturbed), is that a lot of Republicans don't want to be on record as voting against a bill they believe the public or their constituents favor. Huh? Trying to kill it without a vote is somehow safe politically, but voting against it on final passage is not?
So why do they get away with it?
Now that, I submit, is an anomaly the blame for which we can lay at the feet of the much-diminished news media, and the shortcomings of the Senate Democrats.
==============================
James Fallows
February 1, 2001
Why bipartisanship can't work: the expert view

I got this note from someone with many decades' experience in national politics, about a discussion between two Congressmen over details of the stimulus bill:
"GOP member: 'I'd like this in the bill.'

"Dem member response: 'If we put it in, will you vote for the bill?'

"GOP member: 'You know I can't vote for the bill.'

"Dem member: 'Then why should we put it in the bill?'

"I witnessed this myself."
I wrote back saying, "Great story!" and got the response I quote below and after the jump. It is worth reading because its argument has the valuable quality of being obvious -- once it is pointed out. The emphasis is mine rather than in the original; it is to highlight a basic structural reality that has escaped most recent analysis of the "bipartisanship" challenge.
"BTW, that exchange I quoted is not really a great story. It is a basic story, fundamental to legislation -- a sort of 'duh!' moment -- and to the US Congressional system, and to the key difference between our system and a parliamentary system when it comes to bipartisanship. I'm astonished every pundit doesn't already get it, but many either don't or seem willfully to ignore it.

"In our system, if the minority party can create and enforce party discipline (which has never really been done before, but which the GOP has now accomplished), then OF COURSE there can be no 'bipartisanship' on major legislative matters, in the sense of (1) the minority adding provisions to legislation as the majority compromises with them, and (2) at least some minority party members then voting with the majority.

"In a parliamentary system, the minority party is not involved in helping write or voting for major legislation either. If you think about it, and as that exchange I quoted shows, that sort of 'bipartisanship' really can't happen in a parliamentary system on issues where the minority party has the power to tell its members to boycott the majority's major bills on final passage.

"Bipartisanship in the American sense means compromising on legislation so that a sufficient number of members of Congress from BOTH parties will support it, even if (as is typically the case) a few majority party members defect and most minority party members don't join. Bipartisanship consists of getting ENOUGH members of the minority party to join the (incomplete) majority in voting for major legislation. It can't happen if the minority party members vote as a block against major legislation. And that can happen only if the minority party has the ability to discipline its ranks so that none join the majority, which is the unprecedented situation we've got in Congress today.

"The way parliamentary parties maintain their discipline is straightforward. No candidate can run for office using the party label unless the party bestows that label upon him or her. And usually, the party itself and not the candidate raises and controls all the campaign funds. As every political scientist knows, the fact that in the U.S. any candidate can pick his or her own party label without needing anyone else's approval, and can also raise his or her own campaign funds, is why there cannot be and never really has been any sustained party discipline before -- even though it is a feature of parliamentary systems.

"The GOP now maintains party discipline by the equivalent of a parliamentary party's tools: The GOP can effectively deny a candidate the party label (by running a more conservative GOP candidate against him or her), and the GOP can also provide the needed funds to the candidate of the party's choice. And every GOP member of Congress knows it. (Snowe and Collins may be immune, but that's about it.)

"I've missed almost all the punditry this past week... but what I've seen seems almost like a lot of misleading fluff designed to fill the void that should follow an understanding of the foregoing, at least on the subject of 'why no bipartisanship?' There's really nothing more to be said about "why no bipartisanship," once one recognizes the GOP party discipline. On this issue, it's absolutely astounding to blame Obama or even the Congressional leadership (although Pelosi and Reid leave much to be desired otherwise). It's doubly astounding that the GOP did it once before, less perfectly, but with a very large reward for bad behavior in the form of the 1994 mid-term elections. Yet no one calls them on it effectively, and bad behavior seems about to be rewarded again...

"Ironically, the one thing that might lubricate some bipartisanship -- earmarks, or their functional equivalent in specific amendments of general policy -- is becoming unavailable just when needed, and when it might help. After the exchange I quoted (and observed), a Dem could run against that GOP incumbent by pointing out that the GOP opponent lost X or Y or Z project or policy benefit for his or her district or state by insisting on voting down the line with the GOP. 'Put his party above his constituents,' might be the charge, or 'Put Michael Steele above you and me.' But so far, the Dems don't seem to have cottoned onto this. They could go into the 2010 elections not just challenging the obstructionists in the GOP, but showing the electorate what the price of obstruction has been for real people back home."
As I have pointed out a time or two or a thousand, the structural failures of American government are the country's main problem right now. In this installment, we see that the US now has the drawbacks of a parliamentary system -- absolute party-line voting by the opposition, for instance -- without any of the advantages, from comparable solidarity among the governing party to the principle of "majority rules." If Democrats could find a way to talk about structural issues -- if everyone can find a way to talk about them -- that would be at least a step. And the Dems could talk about the simple impossibility of governing when the opposition is committed to "No" as a bloc.

--------------------------------------------------
February 22, 2010
More from the "why bipartisanship can't work" guy

Yesterday I quoted someone who has worked in and observed national politics for many years, about why this era's partisan impasse really is different from what we've known in other eras -- and worse. In short, his point was that today's GOP minority was acting like a parliamentary opposition -- voting absolutely as a bloc, under the threat of party discipline -- in our non-parliamentary system, which made it very hard to get anything done.

He is back with another installment, after surveying the range of internet response to his views:
"I'm surprised at the number of people who say, in effect, 'But lots of bills have passed with Republican votes this year.'

"That's the reason to keep including (as your blog post did) the word "major" in front of "legislation." In a parliamentary system, the party does not make EVERY vote into one of required lock-step voting - only major votes. Hence the notion of the "three line whip" notice in the House of Commons - defy that, and you're dead. But absent the three lines drawn on the whip notice, an MP can vote the way he or she prefers. Or at least that was the way it used to work. Probably it is all done by Blackberry messages now.

"What the GOP has got going is a three-line whip notice on major legislation. The Recovery Act passed the House without a single GOP vote - not even one! That could not happen without party discipline coming from the party, not spontaneously from each House member of the party. It is true that there are lots of other bills that Republicans can vote for if they wish. True, but irrelevant. If any of the bills really matters to Obama in a big way, the contemporary GOP version of the three-line whip notice comes into play.

"(And how EXACTLY does each GOP member get the word that a particular vote really matters for this purpose? Find the answer to that, and you will have the perfect comeback to those who try to blame intransigence of the Dems for the lack of GOP votes. Someone somewhere is giving orders to GOP members, whether by verbal means, written or oral, or secret handshakes or numbers of lanterns hung in the steeples of churches.)

"A closely related development fascinates and infuriates me, partly re the GOP and partly re the press. In the Senate, the GOP votes against cloture. But when the Dems finally manage to get the 60 votes, lots of GOP senators typically vote for the bill on final passage. "What's up with THAT?" I've asked several times. In the past, if you opposed a bill getting to a vote on the floor, typically (admittedly not always) you would also oppose it IN the vote on the floor. That was the only reason to oppose it getting to the floor - because you opposed it! The answer, I've been told several times (by Democratic staffers, who don't seem at all surprised or perturbed), is that a lot of Republicans don't want to be on record as voting against a bill they believe the public or their constituents favor. Huh? Trying to kill it without a vote is somehow safe politically, but voting against it on final passage is not? Now that, I submit, is an anomaly the blame for which we can lay at the feet of the much-diminished news media, and the shortcomings of the Senate Democrats."

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