This is the winter of our discontent. Liberals are sulking because President Obama has not given them change to believe in. Conservatives are filled with loathing at their own fantasies of his big-government takeover. Tea partiers are angry at the thought of the president succeeding at all. The media, preoccupied with politics without substance, suffer repetition compulsion, reporting hourly readings of the country’s ups and downs. Most of all, the Senate has proved itself incapable of deliberative action. Its handling of the health care bill painted the worst caricature of the legislative process as “sausage-making” since Bismarck first used the metaphor to characterize the process of lawmaking.
From the beginning, the Republican minority refused to reciprocate the president’s overtures to bipartisanship. Even after being given disproportionate representation on the Finance Committee for drawing up the Senate health care bill, Senate Republicans used the threat of filibuster to form an immovable phalanx opposing even token reform. Even while they had a 60-vote supermajority, Senate Democrats were not able to advance the legislative process. The public watched Max Baucus, Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieu feeding their egos and abetting their home state interests and said, “If this is health reform, we don’t want it.”
The White House cut premature deals with Big Pharma and the insurance companies and then let the deals stand even as the same special interests lobbied to gut the bill and stuff their pockets. Even after the State of the Union address, no one can say what the White House wants in a health care bill. If Canada can craft a health care law in a bilingual statute of 14 pages, why does the U.S. Congress need 2,000 pages, except that American lawmaking is so thoroughly ridden with special interests? The only branch of government that seems to have tried to work for the people these last months is the House of Representatives, led by its much-maligned speaker, Nancy Pelosi.
We face a vexing question of whether the political structures bequeathed us by the founding fathers can meet the challenges of the 21st century: health care, climate change, financial reform, sustainable development. Health care is only one of many issues the American political system has not been able to fix. The whole industrial world and some developing countries have more effective, less costly systems with universal coverage. Denmark has a green economy and has not increased its energy usage since the early 1980s. Canada, with its strong consumer protections and limits on banks’ leveraging and securitization of assets, was spared the worst effects of the Wall Street collapse. Europe and China devote far less of their national wealth to defense. Europe applies the gains to domestic welfare and overseas aid; China to long-term development, while the U.S. announces another modest cut in “discretionary spending” that leaves the bloated “security sector” untouched.
Some opponents of health care reform argue that deadlock is actually what the framers of the Constitution intended with their system of checks and balances, but the framers never prescribed a 60-vote supermajority to pass a bill in the Senate. The supermajority is a matter of a changeable Senate rule that requires 60 votes to close off unlimited debate intended to prevent unwanted legislation from coming to a vote. The most obvious reform the Senate needs in order to end the tyranny of the minority is to make it easier to terminate debate.
At a very minimum, notice of the intent to filibuster ought not be sufficient to close down the legislative process. The current rate of use of the filibuster to prevent legislation from coming to a vote, used in recent years against major legislation 70 percent of the time, compared with 7 percent of the time in the early 1960s, is due in part to the minimalist requirement of mere notification to block legislation. Those who want to delay legislation by nonstop talk ought to be forced to do so on television. C-Span will do the rest. Exposure will make the pettiness of the filibusters (or their wisdom) apparent for the public to see. Another step would be to reduce the number of votes needed for cloture to, say, 55 or even 51 votes.
If you are looking this anxious winter for glimmers of hope in government performance, one may be found in the U.S. military’s application of its logistical strength to the post-earthquake relief in Haiti. International organizations and private relief and development agencies would have been severely hampered without it. A second is the promise of a successful negotiation on a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the United States and Russia later this month, reducing nuclear weapons arsenals on both sides. Of course, for treaty ratification we may have to hold our breath, as we wait to see whether it gets through the Senate.