Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Triumph of Willful Men (and Women), and What to do About It

The best thing to come out of the health care debate, as far as I can tell, other than a lukewarm bill whose merits and demerits will continued to be debated ad nauseam (I’m for it, though I’m glad I don’ t have to vote for it, on the record) is the call for the reform of the filibuster. If the filibuster is changed or eliminated, that would be, in my opinion, real, lasting reform. I’m not so sure about the health care bill. And getting rid of the filibuster would be a salutary change in progressive thinking. For reasons that I cannot fathom, liberals, progressives, democrats, have been over the past decade profoundly uninterested in discussing structural reform of the American government. The Bush-Gore election should have been an occasion for serious talk about Electoral College reform, and no more Floridas should have been a top issue for any new Democratic administration. And likewise, on January 20th 2009, Obama should made clear that ending the filibuster (at a time when the Dems only had 58 seats in the senate) should have been a top priority, rather than wasting months with oleaginous talk of bipartisanship.

The complete lack of interest in the reform of any constitutional arrangement is a hallmark of contemporary progressives, and it distinguishes modern progressives from Progressive era progressives, New Deal progressives, or Great Society progressives, all of whom expressed great interest in changing the way the government works in fundamental ways, and often tried to neuter the filibuster’s potential for gumming up the government works. (But, BTW, kudos to the “little band of willful men” who tried to prevent US entry to WWI. ) Getting around the nine old men on the US Supreme Court, and if Roosevelt’s court packing was too blatant a way around it, the need to do so spawned all sorts of constitutional innovations. And trying to loose the southern grasp over the senate, both in terms of committee chairmanships, procedure, and filibusters, was a major cause for civil rights liberals in the 1950s and 1960s. But for all the talk of change that ushered in Obama, there has little serious talk until now of changing the structure of government. There are reasons for this. Sstructural change is not inherently partisan; changing the filibuster or electoral college rules could help either party. They are not bread and butter issues. And arguably the filibuster is more murky now then it was half a century ago. It is no longer the prerogative of dixiecrats but is an equal opportunity delaying tactic, used by both sides freely. But besides adding to the profoundly antidemocratic nature of the senate, it makes the senate a place where serious legislation goes to die. Its fine to expand the health care system, try to pass a cap and trade bill (good luck), or tackle immigration reform (good luck again), but it is only when progressives learn again that the forms of the government are not inviolately given, and are, in the hands of the people, possess an inherent plasticity, that reform will really matter. The rest is just soundbites. The Obama presidency has had its first real encounter with structural and procedural reality, and I hope they and we learn from it.


Iver said...

Agreed. But I think that comprehensive campaign finance reform may have to come first, which is admittedly a long shot. Today, our federal bicameral system is controlled by lobbyists who want specific results in return for their money and influence.

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