Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Shelby backs down, American democracy makes slight recovery

So Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama has ended his "hold" on 70 of President Obama's nominees, effectively filibustering them (and requiring 60 votes for confirmation).

And why? Is it really because he got "the White House's attention" on a couple of issues, as his office claims? Or, putting aside the spin, is it rather because his largely indefensible tactic got some negative media attention, Democrats pushed back, and he was forced to cave?

You have to be a partisan fool to take him at his word.


But what of the tactic itself? As TNR's Jonathan Chait explained the other day, the rise of the "hold," like the rise of the filibuster (or, rather, the more common usage of it), is a sign of historic "Senate dysfunction":

The "hold" is a now similar tool to what the filibuster was forty years ago. It's a sparingly-used weapon meant to signal an unusually intense preference. A Congressional scholar reports that putting a blanket hold on all the president's nominees has never been done before. But there's no rule that says you can't. It's just not done, until it is.

Shelby is using his blanket hold to demand pork for his state. It's a telling sign of the decay of the process, another indication of the power parochial interests have to block rational policymaking. But what's to keep the minority party form simply blocking all the president's nominees, from day one? Sure, they might catch some heat. But the president would eventually catch even more heat as his undermanned administration slid into dysfunction. And politics is a zero-sum game.

That may sound like a crazy scenario. But history shows that you can't count on social norms to prevent competing parties from trying to maximize their advantage. The only way to change this kind of behavior is to change the rules.

It's a sign of "the decay of the process," yes, but also, and more dramatically, of the corruption and decline of American democracy. This is what it has come to, after all -- at least as long as Republicans try to prevent the majority party from governing, that is, as long as they try to grind America's federal government to a halt.

And they call themselves patriots?

Paul Krugman makes an apt historical comparison (with more here):

So, here's the news from the Senate. Martha Johnson was nominated to head the General Services Administration, and was confirmed by a nearly unanimous vote -- but only after having had her nomination held hostage for nine months by Senator Kit Bond, who wanted more pork for Kansas City. And now Senator Richard Shelby has placed a hold on -- are you seated -- all, all, Obama administration nominees, until he gets some pork for Alabama.

What's going on? The Senate has rules based on the idea that it was a chamber of gentlemen who would find ways to work together. But now, 41 Senators belong to a party that has no interest in a working government, no desire to work with the majority in good faith.

There's a precedent for all this. In effect, we've now become 17th-century Poland.

Things weren't good there and then, and they aren't good here and now.

Back then, you could blame various "Polish magnates" for taking Poland to "the brink of collapse." Now, you can blame the Republicans for doing just in a country that is supposedly, and still proudly, a "democracy."

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