Friday, October 29, 2010

Bicameral Disorder

The midterms are almost upon us.  Widely expected to be a major Republican victory, the combination of a weak economy with high unemployment, an unusually large Democratic majority and a long history of losses for the President's party in the midterm election will likely result in a Republican majority in the House of Representatives.  There's even a slim possibility that the Republicans will win BOTH houses of congress.  Democratic activists are panicked by the very thought of these outcomes, fearful of what might come to pass with only the veto pen of their 'post partisan' President, Barack Obama standing between wingnut legislators and the future.  And with Obama's history of preemptive capitulation, they find cold comfort there.

But perhaps this concern is overblown.  Certainly, the combination of an extreme far-right Congressional majority whose overheated rhetoric leaves them unable to compromise on anything and a President who's entire relationship with the legislature is predicated on compromise or outright surrender might, in theory, lead to some fairly unpleasant consequences.  But the American political system has evolved a firebreak, a body thats function might best be described as 'sand in the gears', a group of individuals so invested in the status quo, so dedicated to personal aggrandizement over public policy, so unwilling to take any political risk that it seems their true role is to actually prevent any real legislative accomplishment.

Yep.  I'm talking about the United States Senate.  A legislative body that has, over time, evolved a set of rules giving any one of the 100 Senators the power to bring virtually any governmental function to a halt.  From secret holds to objections to unanimous consent to the filibuster, they have placed 100 powerful people with outsized egos in complete control of every last bit of American governance.  In the last two years, the House of Representatives has passed no less than 420 bills that the Senate never even took up. Cap and Trade, Jobs, additional Stimulus, a veritable smorgasbord of important, progressive legislation passed the house, in some cases on extremely contentious votes not without political risk, only to die in the self-absorbed funhouse mirror that is the US Senate.

So, with the Senate fully committed to preening in front of the cameras and refusing to do anything that might appear to be capable of altering the status quo, the concern that some nefarious or destructive legislation might be sent to the White House for the President's signature or veto is somewhat farfetched. Of course, with the number and complexity of the problems facing us, this kind of institutional inaction cannot really be seen as a sort of 'benign neglect'.  Rather, all the problems will get worse as they go unaddressed, new problems will develop without hope of a solution, and regular people will suffer as the delivery of government services becomes increasingly difficult.

But it should provide some peace of mind in January, when you see this new crop of arguably insane, ignorant extreme right wing fundamentalists take their seats as United States Senators and Congressmen and women.  For all their frightening rhetoric, they will be confronted and stymied by the same institutional dysfunction that so seriously constrained the actions of President Obama and Speaker Pelosi.  In a very real sense, it no longer matters who controls congress - the Senate is a truly bi-partisan catastrophe.


  1. I think the problem is we are on the path to destruction, make your time.

    And we need to change what we're doing, but instead we're going to double down on the same old stuff that got us into this mess.

  2. I think you're right. If anything, you're understating it. Because we not only have people gaining monetary and political benefits by preventing, derailing and watering down real solutions, but we have a political system, designed for another time and another reality, with so many veto points and so many exploitable rules and systems that even if a majority WANTED to solve the problems (which, to be clear, they do not), they would find themselves unable to do so...

  3. Sadly, electoral politics are a joke both in & of themselves, & a joke as to any actual effect on anything, beyond Supreme Court appointments, which do eventually matter.

    And w/ a brainwashed electorate, in which those who do vote are almost evenly divided, well ...

    Cheerfully yrs., I remain, &c.