Senate obstructionism

by Henry on November 9, 2004

Adam Posen at the IIE has an interesting article in today’s FT about the political motivations and consequences of Bush’s economic policy.[1] For me, the key quote:

However, the Bush administration is putting its political staying power ahead of economic responsibility – indeed it is weakening the independence of those very institutions on which Americans rely to check economic radicalism. For example, the current Republican congressional leadership is trying to override the constitutional design whereby the Senate acts as a brake on the executive branch and on the self-interest of “majority faction”. Bill Frist, senate majority leader and George Allen, the Republican senate campaign committee chair, said their unprecedented direct campaign against Tom Daschle, the defeated Senate minority leader, should warn moderate Republican and Democratic senators not to be “obstructionist”, even though that is precisely what the Founding Fathers intended the Senate to do.
… Markets tend to assume that the US political system will prevent lasting extremist policies so, even now, observers discount the likelihood of the Bush administration fully pursuing – let alone passing – this economic agenda. If the thin blue line of Democrats and the responsible Republican moderates in the Senate bravely fulfil their constitutional role, perhaps the damage will be limited. If not, we can foresee the US economy following the path to extended decline of the British economy in the 1960s and 1970s and of Japan in the 1990s.

I think that there’s an important message for the anti-Bush opposition here, if it can only articulate it clearly and simply. The current administration claims to be both conservative and strict constructionist; it’s neither. In fact, it’s trying to short-circuit the basic constitutional checks and balances of the US political system in order to ram through its agenda. The US apart, presidential democracies are extremely fragile, in large part because presidents tend to grab all power to themselves. This is exactly what the Bush administration is doing, both in its sweeping constitutional arguments about the extent of presidential privilege, and in its efforts to impose strict discipline on the Senate. This is something that shouldn’t only be worrying to lefties – it’s something that should be of deep concern both to serious conservatives, and to libertarians who are worth their salt.

fn1. No hyperlink because it’s behind their paywall.

{ 31 comments }

1

George Williams 11.09.04 at 7:25 pm

“I think that there’s an important message for the anti-Bush opposition here…”

Your point is well taken. How should the anti-Bush opposition act upon this message?

2

kevin donoghue 11.09.04 at 7:35 pm

“How should the anti-Bush opposition act upon this message?”

Shout it from the rooftops. The fact that Henry can say this “is something that shouldn’t only be worrying to lefties” is a good indication of the effectiveness of the propaganda machine. Some of the most worried people around are conservatives.

3

Simra 11.09.04 at 7:40 pm

I’m wearing my tinfoil hat here, but the actions of the Bush admin seem to be consistent with the unstated goal of bankrupting the federal government. From the perspective of less-government-is-good, championed by Captains of Industry like Our Friend Cheney, it seems reasonable to assume that encumbering the government with massive debt will serve to render it toothless, especially as it applies to regulating big business. Not to mention the distraction of a War on Terror (pay no attention to the man behind the curtain).

4

George 11.09.04 at 7:41 pm

Agreed, Henry. This Bush voter is more than a little nervous at the GOP’s undemocratic ways in Washington, and their full-spectrum dominance of the organs of Federal government.

But just to play devil’s advocate, I do have a quibble with your argument. There’s a difference between acting as a “check” and being “obstructionist.” I believe the Founders had the former in mind and not the latter. Of course, the difference is almost entirely subjective: if one thinks that the majority’s agenda (economic or otherwise) is radical and extreme, then blocking that agenda is consistent with the Founders’ intent. If, on the other hand, one thinks that the majority’s agenda is reasonable, then blocking it is obstructionist. There are plenty of people who hold this latter view.

The only opinion that counts, ultimately, is that of the electorate. And last week, for better or worse, we voted the GOP to greater majorities in both houses.

5

jet 11.09.04 at 7:55 pm

Oh come on, it isn’t like Bush is threatening to add three seats to the Supreme Court unless they decide in his favor. It my serve you well to examine the history of the US an see if there have been presidents much less scrupulous in their thirst for power ie. we survived Roosevelt, we can survive anyone. Or perhaps I was wrong, I did hear on IndieMedia that Rove was threatening FBI drive by’s on any senator filibustering Bush’s agenda.

6

Uncle Kvetch 11.09.04 at 8:08 pm

I’m wearing my tinfoil hat here, but the actions of the Bush admin seem to be consistent with the unstated goal of bankrupting the federal government.

There is absolutely nothing tinfoil-hattish about it.
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a major inspiration to the Bush administration on fiscal matters, has stated quite explicitly that this is, in fact, the objective: “The goal is reducing the size and scope of government by draining its lifeblood.”

And yet somehow there still seem to be quite a few people that can listen to Bush talk about “shrinking the deficit in half in five years” without laughing or throwing up.

7

Daniel Geffen 11.09.04 at 8:10 pm

As I’ve pointed out here, there’s certainly a case to be made that the Founding Fathers wanted Senators to impede (though not halt) the progress of legislation. Even better, there are plenty of colorful quotes from the Founders on the subject (Washington’s tea saucer and all that).

8

P O'Neill 11.09.04 at 8:10 pm

It’s interesting that the traditional indictment of Eurosclerosis points to excessive consensus seeking as an obstacle to growth whereas this post correctly points to unchecked power as another source of economic decline. So what works? Tony Blair style government where one side steals just enough of the other side’s ideas to be electable?

9

George 11.09.04 at 8:32 pm

So what works? Tony Blair style government where one side steals just enough of the other side’s ideas to be electable?

Worked like a charm for Bill Clinton.

It’s a rich irony that, though I disliked him while in office, in retrospect Clinton seems to me indistinguishable from a pretty competent moderate Republican. People still argue whether the 1990s boom was more his doing or Reagan’s (or completely independent). Probably a mix, but who cares? ‘Not mucking it up’ is an accomplishment too.

10

james 11.09.04 at 8:35 pm

The Republicans have a majority in the Senate (and House of Representatives). A filibuster is not a power granted to the Senate by the US Constitution. How exactly is the Republican leadership overriding the constitutional design of the Senate?

11

abb1 11.09.04 at 9:01 pm

…that is precisely what the Founding Fathers intended the Senate to do…

Leaving the merits of senate obstructionism aside for a moment, the ‘Founding Fathers intended’ argument is really annoying. Who cares what they indended? It was over 200 years ago for chrissake. It doesn’t matter what they indended.

FWIW, I didn’t like senate obstructionism in 1993 when Clinton was pushing his healthcare bill. Didn’t like it at all.

12

Uncle Kvetch 11.09.04 at 9:49 pm

FWIW, I didn’t like senate obstructionism in 1993 when Clinton was pushing his healthcare bill. Didn’t like it at all.

Me neither. But I came around two years later, when Newt and the boys came to town, and the Senate started to look like an oasis of sanity.

13

Andrew 11.09.04 at 10:07 pm

The reason presidential democracies are fragile is that in the event of conflict between the president and the legislature, the president is tempted to simply abolish the legislature on the basis of his popular mandate. This has happened throughout Latin America (whose 19th century republics were modeled on the U.S.).

But the Bush administration is only able to concentrate power in the executive because his party controls the legislature. Eventually if the government is divided again, this dynamic will reverse itself. The FT article is right-on in saying that over-strong government caused by unified rule could lead to economic problems (not to mention all sorts of other policy disasters). But it seems a little apocalyptic to say that Bush’s power grabs will lead to long-term damage to the U.S. constitutional system.

14

Giles 11.09.04 at 10:10 pm

“Worked like a charm for Bill Clinton. “

Unfortunately I think both Blair and Clinton poisoned the aftermath – by stealing one sides idea they turn their opponent against them and they annoy their supporters on the left by ignoring them.

End result of third wayism is that they push everyone to extremes.

15

Henry 11.09.04 at 10:30 pm

bq.But the Bush administration is only able to concentrate power in the executive because his party controls the legislature. Eventually if the government is divided again, this dynamic will reverse itself. The FT article is right-on in saying that over-strong government caused by unified rule could lead to economic problems (not to mention all sorts of other policy disasters). But it seems a little apocalyptic to say that Bush’s power grabs will lead to long-term damage to the U.S. constitutional system.

Fair enough wrt Senate-Executive relations. But what about the executive branch’s constitutional theories about the extent of executive authority in war-making, getting energy companies to help make their policy etc? I don’t mean to suggest that the US is going to become a banana republic anytime soon (although I accept that my analogy could be interpreted that way) – but we could see some substantial and unbalanced advances in the power of the executive branch following another four years of conservative court appointments, which would have long term adverse consequences for the ability to hold the executive branch accountable for its actions (and which in many respects is _already_ making it difficult to hold the executive branch accountable).

16

Katherine 11.09.04 at 10:42 pm

“And last week, for better or worse, we voted the GOP to greater majorities in both houses.”

Trivia: more Senate votes were cast for Democrats even though they lost 4 seats. And the 45 Democrats/Independents in the Senate represent more voters than the 55 Republicans.

That’s how the system works, of course. But all the Republicans who will shortly be denouncing the filibuster as undemocratic & working on changing the rule are perfectly happy to accept a less-democratic system when it works in their favor.

17

Nicholas Weininger 11.09.04 at 10:51 pm

In the middle of jet’s invective, he has a good point. Presidents of both parties have been making power grabs, usually in times of crisis, for practically the entire history of the republic. FDR’s court-packing scheme is hardly the only egregious example; Adams, Lincoln, Wilson, Johnson, Nixon are all guilty.

On the one hand, this is some cause for optimism, since we’re still around despite all that those guys could do. On the other hand, the power of the executive never seems to diminish again when the crisis is over. So we have by degrees gotten an executive with a level of power the Founders would certainly have abhorred as dictatorial, and that ain’t good at all. Furthermore, there is no organized constituency for reducing the power of the Presidency as such, and we have a congressional opposition that was unusually stupid and spineless even when it controlled the Senate.

It’s worth remembering that FDR’s scheme finally failed when enough members of his own party called bullshit on him. If and when six Republican senators (Chafee, Snowe, Collins, Specter, Hagel, Lugar, are you listening?) can be found to call bullshit on Bush, his drive for power will be halted. We shall have to see how long that takes.

18

limberwulf 11.09.04 at 11:25 pm

It has always been the way in politics for the group who is losing to cry foul and point out examples of abuses or perceived ones. It has also always been the way for those same groups to keep silent or even defend the very same techniques when the agenda matches their own. As such I think the whole thing may be a bit overstated.

That said, I do not like consolidation of power in any form, and actions taken by either party to do so warrant close investigation and action if necessary. OTOH, as a libertarian who considers himself “worth his salt”, I see absolutely no problem with: “The goal is reducing the size and scope of government by draining its lifeblood.” Any method that works is fine with me. I do not, however, think that deficit spending is the answer. A balanced budget combined with tax cuts would be more effective. Borrowing merely delays the inevitable, by burdening the taxpayer with inflation and interest payments to the lenders. Tax cuts are only tax cuts if there are correspnding spending cuts. Those cuts need to occur in nearly every branch of government. The lifeblood is not the credit of the government, but the actual revenue.

As for the Founding Father’s intent, I agree with James. There was no place for filibuster in the constitution, it is simply a way for the minority to slow the progress of the majority. I am not entirely opposed to this, and I do not think that the president is the one who should be trying to stop it, but I do think that it is a precedent that is easily abused. A notable (tho not massive) majority of all persons who cared enough/were ellegible to vote chose the republicrats. The Demicans will just have to suck it up.

19

Katherine 11.09.04 at 11:37 pm

“A notable (tho not massive) majority of all persons who cared enough/were ellegible to vote chose the republicrats.”

Again, this is false as far as the Senate goes. Here is the cite:

“In Thursday’s Times, a front-page news analysis argued that “it is impossible to read President Bush’s reëlection with larger Republican majorities in both houses of Congress as anything other than the clearest confirmation yet that this is a center-right country—divided yes, but with an undisputed majority united behind his leadership.” That is certainly true in institutional terms. But it is not true in terms of people, of actual human beings. Though the Republicans won nineteen of the thirty-four Senate seats that were up for grabs last Tuesday, for a gain of four, the number of voters who cast their ballots for Republican Senate candidates was 37.9 million, while 41.3 million voted for Democrats—almost exactly Bush’s popular-vote margin over Kerry.”
Hendrik Hertzberg

20

Brett Bellmore 11.10.04 at 12:17 am

Ah, but only a third of the Senate comes up for reelection every two years, so there were states where no votes for Senator were cast. And how would THEY have gone? We can guess, but we don’t know. We merely know that the votes for Senators were not a representative sample of the whole country.

Now, the votes for the House, the story there is different.

21

George 11.10.04 at 1:02 am

That’s interesting stuff, Katherine, but as you say, trivia. An accidental result of which states had Senate races. For instance, more than half that margin of 3.7 million mentioned by Hertzberg was run up in the wildly uncompetitive race in California.

22

Andrew 11.10.04 at 1:47 am

One other thing to keep in mind is that the trend toward concentration of power in the executive has been happening both throughout U.S. history (as others have already pointed out) *and* in most Western democracies. For example, it used to be that European legislatures could negotiate the terms of treaties; now most of them can only vote up-or-down on a treaty delivered to them by the executive. As my politics TA once pointed out, one of the factors which has made the EU possible is the increasing concentration of power in the hands of the executive (ie, the person who negotiates the treaty with the other countries), thus making it easier for all countries to agree on a treaty because the executive of each country “rams it through.”

So obviously this is still a disturbing development, even if it is quite common. But perhaps it’s one of those “inevitable” trends in the political development of modern states, such as increasing intensity and scope of governance (ie bigger government), or in the U.S., increasing strength of the federal government.

23

Bernard Yomtov 11.10.04 at 2:17 am

That’s interesting stuff, Katherine, but as you say, trivia. An accidental result of which states had Senate races.

OK. But we might note that the population of states with two Democratic senators is greater than that of states with two Republicans.

24

tadhgin 11.10.04 at 2:30 am

Limberwulf said “…as a libertarian…I see absolutely no problem with “…reducing the size and scope of government by draining its lifeblood.” Any method that works is fine with me.”

Which is a very unprincipled (and unlibertarian) attitude. Remember the money that is wasted draining the lifeblood of government belongs to taxpayers. You cannot justify squandering (the) people’s money because of your personal preferences!

25

Chris 11.10.04 at 3:11 am

So what is needed is an effective opposition.

– Works hard to be involved in the issues, with the stakeholders;
– contributes contstructively when possible
– doesn’t generate wasted effort on points that don’t make a difference in value
– builds influence through constituents and stakeholder organisations, delivering well-argued contributions, and selling them to stakeholders and Government agencies.
– gains points toward election by becoming credible as an alternative government.

26

limberwulf 11.10.04 at 4:17 am

tadhgin,
I placed that statement in a specific context, which you removed it from. I mentioned that draining the lifeblood was as good a method as any to weaken the beast, but I also mentioned that deficit spending is not the way to drain the lifeblood, because revenue is the true lifeblood, not credit. The intent of the statement is to starve the beast, because negotiating with it or killing it has not worked. Its placement as evidence of purposed deficit spending was dubious at best, taking my statement out of context was even more so.

27

Katherine 11.10.04 at 7:18 am

Well, I’m not sure why the popular vote totals run up in states that weren’t close give a “mandate” to the president but not to the incoming Senate class. They’re relevant or their not.

You guys are really lucking out right now due to some undemocratic features of our government: the overrepresentation of small states in the Senate. The slight overrepresentation of small states in the electoral college. The electoral college first got Bush into power. The increasing phenomenon of House reps choosing their voters instead of voters choosing their House reps. The overrepresentation of small states in the constitutional amendment process.

I live in Boston, am originally from the NYC area. My states are not contested in presidential elections, ever, as long as I can remember. Both, and especially NY, are underrepresented in the Senate. They are represented in the House, but the GOP has used questionable redistricting tactics to get a majority we can’t challenge, and has used that majority to entirely cut my legislators out of the legislative process. They also cut my Senators out of the legislative process. The candidate I supported for President in 2000 won despite losing the popular vote, partly because he got lucky as hell in Florida and the Supreme Court–the kinds of people that get referred to as “unelected judges” in other contexts–sealed it. Now, he won both the popular vote and the electoral vote this time, but if he loses in 2000 Gore’s in office on 9/11 and our history looks very different.

This president and Congress are trying to pass a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in my state and in the country. This will do material harm to a lot of good friends of mine, and to the Constitution itself in my view. I don’t think it will pass Congress, but I can’t dismiss the possibility. If it passes Congress, it will probably go into the Constitution, because every state has an equal voice in whether gay marriage is allowed. The states I am most confident will vote down such an amendment–California, New York, Illinois, Massachusetts–have SO MANY more people than most of the states I am most confident will support it–Wyoming, the Dakotas. But that doesn’t matter. 53 million Californians, 28 million New Yorkers, and 8-9 million people in Massachusetts–including those whose marriage licenses may be torn up–have exactly as much say as 500,000-odd people from Wyoming and North Dakota, and 700,000-odd people from South Dakota.

9/11 was an attack on the city where I was born. The city where I was born & my whole family lives, and the city where I live now, are some of the most likely targets of a new attack. (We think, by overwhelming majorities, that this President puts us in greater danger of attack. That’s irrelevant as far as the democratic issues, it just increases the big states’ emotional sense of grievance and fear at being systematically underrepresented in the electoral process.) Despite all this, New York gets the second least per capita homeland security spending in the country. Wyoming gets the most. It is pretty clear that this is because of the way small states are overrepresented in Congress, and to a lesser extent because the states with the more likely targets are generally represented by Democrats.

The only voice, the only chance, the only people in the government whom I trust even a tiny, tiny amount to represent my interests are the 45 Democratic Senators–who once again, represent more people than the 55 Senate Republicans–who might be able to muster a fillibuster or two against some truly disastrous party. And now the Republicans are trying to take that away. Well, they can do it, legally, but don’t fucking pretend they’re doing it in the name of “democracy” so that they can carry out “the will of the people.” It’s a naked, ugly, power grab, and nothing more.

This is getting pretty far afield from the original post, but
the worst part of it is, if my nightmares come true, and there is another severe attack on Boston or New York–the administration I’m convinced is failing to protect me will get huge political benefits from this, and consolidate their hold on power further, and pursue more stupid policies that makes more attacks on us likelier still.

(I hope I don’t need to say this, but just in case: I am not, of course, suggesting that they’re failing to protect us for that reason, even in a tiny or subconscious way. That’s insane.

I assume it’s the usual combination of incompetence and belief in their own infallibility that is leading them to ignore various obvious, sensible steps to prevent Al Qaeda from getting nuclear weapons.)

28

Katherine 11.10.04 at 7:21 am

“The candidate I supported for President in 2000 won despite losing the popular vote”

I think it’s pretty clear from the rest of the post, but: this is a typo. I supported Gore, not Bush.

29

limberwulf 11.10.04 at 4:14 pm

Overrepresentation of small states is what the senate was designed for. The House is the part of congress designed to represent based on population. The reasoning was that certain powers reside with state governments, and those governments should not have all of their power based on population. As for electoral overrepresentation I think you may be right. I would prefer to see the number of electoral votes doubled or tripled to permit more accurate differentiation. I would also consider weighted electoral votes, where more states could allow a split vote in a state. Again, however, this removes poer from the state.

If too much is removed from the state, then the state becomes pointless to have. This would be a bad move, because the consolidation of power at the federal level would be even more scary, no matter who the leader was. I dont understand those who support bigger, stronger, better funded federal governments and then whine about power consolidation. The power is there because people kept passing the buck to the fed level and saying “something should be done, as long as I dont have to actually do the work”.

30

Bernard Yomtov 11.10.04 at 9:26 pm

Overrepresentation of small states is what the senate was designed for.

Yes. But remember the context. It was part of an effort to get thirteen quasi-independent entities to form a union. The largest of these, Virginia, had a population about ten times the smallest.

Today California has a population seventy times that of Wyoming and ten times that of Oregon, the 27th largest state. And, with some exceptions, the states later added to the union were simply not the same sort of political entities as tghe original thirteen prior to joining.

There’s not much to be done, I suppose, but I find summoning up the wisdom of the Founders in defense of the logic of current arrangements unpersuasive.

31

tadhgin 11.10.04 at 11:02 pm

Limberwulf what you actually said was:”Any method that works is fine with me”

Dude that’s your opinion IN context. If negotiating (or killing) doesn’t work why should you impose deficits on future generations? Now the question originally was about the efficacy of senate obstructionism. The argument against it is that if you lose an election you should just accept that, and the argument for it is that the rules allow you to do it (protection of minorities etc.). Neither involve inflicting what you believe to be bad policy on the people to force them to come around to your POV. Starve the beast deficit spending does, even if used as last resort-unless you believe running a deficit is in and of itself good policy! (can only apply if the social return exceeds interest rate or for counter-cyclical spending )

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