Is America Irrevocably Ungovernable?

Steven Pearlstein writes that America would be better off with a Republican like Mitch Daniels, Governor of Indiana, as Senate Minority Leader rather than Mitch McConnell.

The bad Mitch, as most Americans know by now, is the charmless and shameless hypocrite who offers up a steady stream of stale ideology and snarky talking points but almost never a constructive idea. McConnell has decided that the only way for Republicans to win is for President Obama to lose, and he will use lies, threats and all manner of parliamentary subterfuge to obstruct the president’s programs.

The good Mitch, by contrast, is a principled but practical conservative who respects the intelligence of voters and would rather get something done than score political points. Daniels is a genuine fiscal conservative who took a $600 million state budget deficit and turned it into a $1 billion surplus but managed to do so without cutting spending for education and even increased funding for child welfare services. He pushed hard to lower property taxes but didn’t hesitate to propose temporary hikes in income and sales taxes to keep the state in the black. He privatized the state’s toll road and then used the $4 billion proceeds to launch a major public works investment program.

Many have pointed out that Republican governors tend to be less crazy than Republican congresspersons — there are exceptions — mostly because governors actually have to govern. So if Mitch Daniels went to Washington he might end up being as big a waste of time as Mitchell Mitch McConnell. Ezra Klein says, “Telling this story in terms of good people and bad people doesn’t give enough weight to the structural incentives that make people of all sorts do good and bad things.”

Matt Yglesias takes this a bit further

We’re suffering from an incoherent institutional set-up in the senate. You can have a system in which a defeated minority still gets a share of governing authority and participates constructively in the victorious majority’s governing agenda, shaping policy around the margins in ways more to their liking. Or you can have a system in which a defeated minority rejects the majority’s governing agenda out of hand, seeks opening for attack, and hopes that failure on the part of the majority will bring them to power. But right now we have both simultaneously. It’s a system in which the minority benefits if the government fails, and the minority has the power to ensure failure. It’s insane, and it needs to be changed.

A rightie blogger, missing the larger point, snarks that when Republicans were the majority many Dems made noise about obstructing the Bush agenda. However, as I remember it, it mostly just noise — rarely were the Dems able to stop the Bushie steamroller. On the other hand, Republican obstruction of the Obama Administration has been pretty effective.

So the problem is not just that Congress can’t get anything done. Under some circumstances it can act effectively and decisively. However, in recent years when Congress acts effectively and decisively, it does so to do things that should not be done — e.g., wreck the nation’s finances with ridiculous tax cuts, start pointless wars, interfere with Terri Shiavo’s medical care. Pushing each of these bad decisions are mighty forces of ideological and vested interests.

But when it comes to taking care of the needs of the American people — forget it. It seems that nothing the American people really need the federal government to do can ever get done. Which means, basically, that Washington cannot govern. Because using the country’s power and resources to serve narrow partisan, ideological and vested interests is not governing. Responding to the needs of the people is governing.

Update: Another rightie mis-reads Matt Yglesias and thinks Matt is just complaining about the filibuster (see rightie’s earlier post in which he does the same thing). Of course, the issue is not the filibuster itself but the fact that a large chunk of Congress serves partisan and corporate interests only. We, the People, are screwed.

[Update: The rightie tells me I am in error. No; I say again, the filibuster itself is not the principal issue. See the Steney Hoyer interview linked in the next paragraph, where Hoyer says “This is a United States Senate that has had more cloture votes in one year than in the ’60s and ’70s combined.” The use of the filibuster as an instrument of obstruction is part of the institutional set-up to which Matt Yglesias refers, but the filibuster itself has been around forever, even in times past when the Senate really could do useful work.

And there is a lot more to the “institutional set-up” than just the filibuster. The procedures for getting bills out of committee, for example, were often used by the Republicans to bottleneck Bill Clinton’s initiatives and appointees in the 1990s. In the past few weeks we’ve seen Republicans using amendment procedures to block progress in the Senate. This is way more than just the filibuster.

The deeper issue is the obstructionism itself, what is causing it, and how it functions. This reaches into far more aspects of Senate procedure than just the filibuster, but more importantly it reaches into the way all of our political processes have broken down.]

See also Ezra Klein’s interview of Steney Hoyer. Hoyer is talking about the difficulty of working with today’s whackjob Republicans, although of course there are also Democrats who don’t represent their constituents any more.

Newt Gingrich was of course the chief proponent of that policy, and he and Bob Michel, who was leader of the Republicans, disagreed. And Gingrich eventually succeeded in pushing Michel out. Michel’s view was you sit down, offer your input, and move forward. The theory was that the American people elected the legislative body to make policy and so you make policy. Gingrich’s proposition, and maybe accurately, was that as long as you, Bob Michel, and our party cooperate with Democrats and get 20 or 30 percent of what we want and they get to say they solved the problem and had a bipartisan bill, there’s no incentive for the American people to change leadership. You have to confront, delay, and undermine and impose failure in order to move the public. To some degree, he was proven right in 1994. …

…The motivation Congress has on each side of the aisle is to be in the majority so it can set policy. But it’s very difficult for the institution to move forward on a bipartisan basis when the minority party does not believe that that’s in their best interest to regain the majority.

And it really isn’t in the Republican’s best interest to regain the majority, because they have no interest in governing. Their interests lie in serving corporate and partisan needs, and at that they are actually just as effective, if not more so, remaining in the minority.

Update: As usual, BTD filters this discussion through the prism of his own ego and interprets it as an excuse for President Obama. But I don’t see it as being about Obama; this is much bigger. Bill Clinton battled the same forces during his administration — he couldn’t get health care passed, and many other of his initiatives (such as the airport security bill that might have prevented 9/11) were watered down to the point of total ineffection. Now the same forces are more concentrated, more entrenched, more rigid.