America the ungovernable, Pt. 2.
We've reached one of those points in U.S. history where everyone, right and left, Republican and Democrat, and certainly everyone on Main Street, has thrown up their hands and declared that the republic is ungovernable.
The ruling party of the moment, the Dems, has the White House and majority control of both houses of Congress, and still it can't get anything done. Or at least that's the impression; the evidence suggests otherwise. Certainly they can't get big things done, conspicuously health care reform, but also climate-change and financial-markets reform bills that will endure tough sledding, and a betting person would say they won't happen.
This week, the president proposed that Congress create a deficit-reduction commission whose recommendations would be binding. Those recommendations would almost certainly be both tax increases and spending cuts. Neither party wanted to be held to those unpopular measures, even with the protective cover that a bipartisan or independent commission would give them. So both Dems and Republicans rejected the idea the same day it was proposed, prompting Obama to create a commission by executive order whose recommendations will not be binding. We've seen that story many times before, as when Reagan appointed industrialist W.R. Grace, in retirement, to head a cost-cutting commission. If anyone other than Grace's grandchildren read his report I'd be surprised.
That was the day before Obama's state of the union address, in which he proposed a return to "pay-go" (pay as you go) an all-too-brief law from what now seems the distant past in which proposed legislation had to include provisions for covering the cost of any proposed new expenditure in that legislation. The day after Obama's speech Congress looked up from its newspaper for a minute, said no to that also, and went back to reading Doonesbury.
What we have here is a factionalized Dem caucus in both houses, and a unified GOP opposed to everything proposed by the majority. The above-mentioned austerity measures had, in one case, sponsorship from no fewer than seven Republicans, who joined their partisan fellows in rejecting a measure they had sponsored.
It's abundantly clear the GOP has no incentive in seeing the majority achieve anything. Only in that way, figures the GOP leadership, do they have something to run on in this November's off-year elections - namely a do-nothing Congress. (It worked for Truman in the 1948 election he was supposed to lose.) The fact the GOP is a prime culprit in do-nothing Congress will not be highlighted in its campaign literature. Yet the focus of voters in November won't be on obstructionist Republicans. It will be on Democratic failures.
There's such a consensus at the moment that GOP obstructionism to the Senate rule on filibusters (it's a Senate rule; it appears nowhere in the Constitution), the U.S. government is about as incapable of action as, well, not Somalia but the thought "failed state" does cross one's mind at such times.
I just want to say this has happened before, many times, and truth, justice and the American way ultimately have prevailed. When hotheads in Congress finally succeeded in getting the president onboard with a war against the British in 1812, New Englanders gave serious thought to secession. They did so again, albeit to a lesser degree, at the outset of the Civil War. The two decades prior to the Civil War were so racked with division over abolitionism that the republic was effectively ungovernable. Tycoon larcency was so rampant, so many jurists from circuit-court judges to the federal bench, were in the pockets of railroad barons that the era of Grant and his immediate successors seemed to be one in which America was a banana republic. Fast forward to the 1970s, the era of oil shocks, double-digit inflation, energy shortages, Watergate, the Nixon pardon, the Mayaguez, the hostage crisis, "rusty Fords" as a metaphor for American industrial decline, and that also seemed a period of ungovernablility, of directionlessness, of the people's will not being heard or acted upon in the Capitol.
And that's a partial list. So we've been here before. But America won the Cold War (actually, the Soviets lost it) Silicon Valley appeared out of seemingly nowhere and continues to thrive (have you ordered you iPad yet?), Hollywood kept dominating world culture (Bollywood's output is more prodigious but, for better or worse, is not widely exportable in the way that Julia Roberts and George Clooney and even, oy, Woody Allen, are), American women run multibillion-dollar corporations these days (Irene Rosenfeld's Kraft Foods just won a hostile bidding war for Cadbury, an venerable icon of British industry), contracting HIV/AIDS is no longer a death sentence, at least in this part of the world, Detroit is on the rebound (not the town, the industry) and Toyota is on the ropes (who'd have thunk it?), and Archie and Veronica are getting married. (I don't see a consummation of that engagement; I'm still rooting for Betty.) Life goes on.
It's only in that context that I excerpt the caustic observations on American federal politics at this moment. When David Brooks and Paul Krugman are in general agreement on a point, that's news. (See America the ungovernable, Pt. 1.) The third riff, by a British writer, on that zoo without bars on the other side of the Atlantic, has more than a touch of familiar snobbery to it, and assumes by omission that British governance is without its own glaring blemishes. (Did you catch the pious Blair's wholly unconvincing testimony this week on why he was compelled to spill British blood to oust Saddam and get those WMDs?) I include him only because the current Washington despair (it's worse than gridlock, it's a sense of resignation and utter futility) has caught the attention of at least some foreigners whom I can't help thinking are revelling in the sight of the world's lone superpower unable to break free of the threads (not string or rope, mere threads) by which it is, for the moment, denying itself the opportunity to make this the second American century.
A final word, on those threads. A victory on healthcare reform would instantly transform the despair to jubilant optimism about the endless possibilities of the "perfectable union" the current president speaks of. To achieve that healthcare-reform victor requires merely that the House Democrats unite, as they would in a parliamentary system, and vote for an already-passed Senate bill they admittedly don't like but is undeniably a quantam leap in establishing the principle of quality health care as a right, not a privilege, of American citizenship. It is proposed legislation that, once signed into law, coudl and would be greatly improved upon, incrementally, in the near future. As was the initially compromised Social Security Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and LBJ's first stab at Medicare in 1965. Medicare begat Medicaid, SCHIP, COBRA and all manner of other comfort-the-afflicted embellishments.
There's a more remote prospect of healthcare-reform victory, which is reconciliation and then "going nuclear" in the Senate by passing that final bill by 50-plus-one votes, bulldozing the odious and undemocratic filibuster in the process. The Dems are reluctant, to say the least, on even contemplating such a thing, because they worry the nuclear option will someday be used against them when they're once again in the minority.
But "minority rules," which is the state of American democracy at this time, is not what the Founders intended nor what this moment requires. The Founders wanted change to be difficult, fearing the downside of radicalism, but not impossible.
This moment requires bold leadership, possibly sacrificing one's re-election prospects in the public interest in the passage of the most important social reform in more than four decades. It will made America healthier, more fiscally sound, and a greater competitive threat in the global market. The reverse will unfold if reform fails, yet again.
As a practical matter, if Dems let this epic opportunity to strengthen the nation pass, a chorus of angels would have a tough time making the case for giving the Dems power ever again, since they're utterly hpaless in figuring out what to do with it. Indeed, after a deserved slaughtering in the midterms - a replay of the Dems' loss of both houses in 1994 - the Dems might just go the way of the Whigs and the Know Nothings of yesteryear, parties whose extinction was dictated by their irrelevance to an evolving nation.
One can rail about GOP obstructionism. But if healthcare-reform dies, it will be an historic act of malpractice by the Democratic Party. Let no Democratic lawmaker in the Capitol fail to understand that. If you're a Democrat and haven't figured out that your party and your country are at stake, you'd be better off shoving a screwdriver in your ear and coming back as a lobster. You'll feel better for it.