Dysfunctional Democracy

Those outside the United States may be surprised how the loss of a Senate seat in the state of Massachusetts in a special election can paralyze the Obama Administration. After all, it was just over a year ago that President Obama was elected by the largest margin for any Democrat in more than 40 years. He still enjoys large majorities in both houses of Congress. Even after losing the Massachusetts seat he still enjoys a 59-to-41 majority in the Senate, a larger margin than any president of either party has had since the 60s.

Yet, President Obama appears unable to move most of his agenda forward. First and foremost, the health care bill that had been the main focus of his attention in his first year in office now appears to be dead. Both houses had approved versions of the bill, but there were still substantial differences that had to be resolved before a final bill could be sent to President Obama to sign. Now that the Democrats no longer have 60 members in the Senate, it seems unlikely that they can get the votes needed to bring a final bill to the floor for a vote.

The same problem applies to almost everything else on President Obama’s agenda. Financial reform legislation looks highly unlikely given the prospect of unanimous Republican opposition. Any major jobs proposal will almost certainly face the same obstacle. Serious measures to limit global warming are almost inconceivable. In fact, President Obama can’t even get many of his appointees approved by the Senate and must now run his administration with interim appointees occupying key positions just below the cabinet level.

This is a new story in U.S. politics. The key issue is the rules in the Senate that allow a minority of 40 members to obstruct legislation, presidential appointees or any other order of business. The rules are not new, with relatively minor modifications they date back to the 19th century. What is new is the willingness of a minority party to use these rules to obstruct almost any order of business by the Senate.

In prior decades, the rules were very infrequently used to obstruct legislation that otherwise enjoyed majority support. The most famous example of the use of these rules to block the majority’s will was the effort to obstruct civil rights legislation in the 50s and 60s. This legislation gave the federal government a direct role in ensuring the voting and legal rights of African Americans, over-riding state laws that made them second class citizens. The legislation was blocked for years over the issue of states’ rights (the basis for the U.S. Civil War in the 19th century).

However deplorable the cause of this obstruction, no one could dispute its importance. Senators were prepared to defend their obstruction of majority rule based on their belief in the principle of states’ rights. No one can argue that the obstruction of nearly every aspect of President Obama’s agenda or his appointees (most of whom have solid records of achievement and public service) is based on such fundamental principles.

The explanation for this obstructionism rests on a fundamentally different dynamic in U.S. politics. In past years, the minority party took advantage of the Senate’s rule sparingly, because they feared being portrayed as obstructionists. This was seen most recently in the Democrats’ reluctance to block funding for the Iraq War under President Bush, even though the vast majority of Democrats were strongly opposed to the war and especially President Bush’s conduct of the war. Democrats refused to use Senate rules to obstruct funding because they feared being portrayed as undermining our troops. Therefore they always let the funding requests go through unchallenged.

The Republicans see a different calculus today. They know that few people follow the details of politics closely. For the most part people know what gets done, not how it happened it or what stopped things from getting done. In the case of the health care bill, people will know if it passes. If it doesn’t pass, the public will see that President Obama, even with Democrats controlling both the House and Senate, was unable to deliver the health care reform that he had promised. President Obama and the Democrats will be held responsible for this failure, not the Republicans who obstructed the bill.

The same holds true for all the other items on his agenda. In particular, Obama has been stifled on every aspect of his stimulus agenda. He originally downsized his stimulus proposal, asking for just two-thirds of what his top economist considered necessary, in order to make it more palatable to Republicans. He ended up getting even less than this scale-downed package. With the downturn even steeper than projected, the economy now faces high rates of unemployment long into the future with little prospect of effective government response.

The prospect of high unemployment and economic stagnation in the United States may be bad news for people here and in the rest of the world, but it is likely good politics for the Republican Party. For the moment, this Republican agenda is likely to dominate American politics.

DEAN BAKER is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy and False Profits: Recoverying From the Bubble Economy.

This column was originally published by The Hankyoreh (South Korea)


Dean Baker is the senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC.