Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Haunting Specter

By Carl 

I need to digest some of what he said yesterday, but Arlen Specter left a flaming bag of poop on the Senate doorstep:

Partisanship, a quest for ideological purity, and the "abuse" of procedural rules have bled collegiality from the U.S. Senate and mired "the world's greatest deliberative body" in gridlock, Specter said.

This was not the usual flowery goodbye and trip down memory lane. 

There's some merit to his point of view, and Specter lays out his case like the prosecutor he was, but is it correct? Is too partisan a bad thing?

Forget the chicken-egg argument. It really doesn't matter who started the partisanship ball rolling. We can track echoes of it back to the McCarthy hearings, to Watergate, to any number of incidents that brought us incrementally to where we are.

Is the legislative process compromised when, well, there is no compromise?

My first observation is that Harry Reid finally seems to have grown a set. So much legislation has been passed in the last few weeks, it's hard to keep track of it all, including the showcase piece, the repeal of DADT. Why he squandered this forcefulness over the past two years will go down in history as one of the greatest blunders a Senate majority leader could ever make.

(Side note: Imagine if Hillary Clinton had not accepted the secretary of state post, instead focusing on rallying the troops for the 2006 election and then lobbying for the Senate majority leadership job...)

In the next Senate, Reid will have to contend with a Republican House that will have a large element of combativeness in its arsenal. Reid squeaked out a win this year against a nutcase who put her foot in her mouth more times than a yogi with a toe fetish. Reid's Senate may not be so lucky next time around if Reid doesn't carefully extract the good from his dilemma while shirking the bad off onto someone else.

A formidable job even for a deft politician with muscle. For Reid, a real challenge.

The twin questions of ideological purity and abuse of procedural rules seem to go hand in hand, in my opinion, and I delineate them differently from simple party line distinctions. Voting along party lines is expected, which is why I'm not sure the last Congress, or even the Congresses under Bush, were "too partisan."

The difference, noticeable over the past twenty years, but in particular a problem during the Clinton administration, has been the severe punishments proferred to a maverick. It has gone from shunnings over minor quibbles, to outright hostility. I've never seen so many incumbents face primary challenges in which fellow Senators and other national party figures have actively campaigned to remove a fellow party incumbent.

This, in my view, is unhealthy, and guess what? For every Lisa Murkowski in the Republican ranks, we have a Joe Lieberman in the Democratic camp. It's not a right-wing problem only. There's a bubbling undercurrent in this pressure cooker that threatens to explode the entire process, causing entropy at best and chaos at worst, but of much more impact will be the quiet before the storm. The attempt to keep a lid on it.

It started in the 1990s, of course, when the GOP leadership suddenly decided to put a thumb on the scale of negotiation and compromise, forcing their Senators to toe a party line first, and only clear compromises second. It was aided and abetted by the right wing blast fax/talk radio Golem, which spewed venom left and right... ok, mostly left... and forced legislators to either deal with the voters (and others outside their districts) or deal with the leadership. The only way to keep things quiet was to memorize talking points, spew them on cue, and vote Republican only.

That wasn't enough, even though Republicans were generally pretty successful with this strategy. As the Congress did nothing through the first Bush administration, and people watched their savings and jobs drift away on this tide or that, Democrats started to put together two and two and actually come up with five when it came to winning an election or two.

The clamps in the GOP tightened. In response, clamps were applied in the Democratic Party as well. The Fifty State Strategy of Howard Dean's DNC tenure really had two effects: it welcomed moderates and even conservatives while at the same time tried to get them to come to some consensus on issues so that Democrats could present a unified front on issues that people wouldn't be too embarassed by in Wyoming or Utah.

This pissed off everyone, from conservative Blue Dog Dems to us liberals.

In Congress, procedural rules became a weapon, rather than a tool. The use of the filibuster is the most notable, and both sides have gone to that trough healthily. I include, however, reconciliation votes in this. It was used to shove Bush's tax cuts down our throats, and some aspects of healthcare reform also utilized this. Here, a bill is deemed passed already for purposes of making cosmetic budgetary amendments to it, which only require a 51 vote majority and no filibusters allowed.

I'm sure in caucus, worse abuses of procedures occured.

Specter comes off as a bit of a whiner in his speech, but he does point out the signal changes in protocol and custom over the past thirty years, mourning the loss.

But things change, Arlen. One can't expect the world to freeze just because you're in the Senate. And one might point out that there were plenty of moments when you could have shown great courage, opting instead to hew to the party line.

But among his "why mes?" he has made several very cogent and valid points. Go read his speech.

(Cross-posted to Simply Left Behind.)

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