Russ Daggatt (guest post)
Great piece, David.
For the reasons you note, I think the only way a decent health care reform bill (that actually reforms — and begins to bend the cost curve rather than just deliver more victims to the private insurance companies) is going to pass the Senate is through the reconciliation process that requires a simple majority. Now that Democrats are in charge, that process is viewed as some kind of unthinkable “nuclear option” that would disrupt the comity (comedy?) of that august body. But it was used to pass all of Bush’s budget-busting tax cuts. And what “comity” is there in the Senate these days? What are the Republicans going to do if they get their feelings hurt? Obstruct?
The filibuster used to be reserved for truly extraordinary matters like denying civil rights to black people. Now the mainstream media (and, unfortunately, Democratic leaders) act as if the Constitution requires 60 votes to pass anything in the Senate and any procedures that would depart from that norm is some kind of nefarious trick. In the health care “debate” the Republicans have taken it to a new level — requiring 60 votes not only to cut off debate but now to even start debate.
Traditionally, coalitions and compromise took place largely within each political party in order to gain a working majority of the electorate. But that seems to be changing, particularly within the Republican party which has become ideologically extreme and monolithic. This process is also taking place (albeit to a lesser extent) within the Democratic party. (I blame two developments: 1/ American society is voluntarily segregating itself culturally. Results of elections over the decades show fewer and fewer counties — not gerrymandered districts, but counties — that are in play from election to election. Right-wingers move to gated country clubs and the fundamentalist exurbs while liberals move to progressive cities on the coasts and university towns. (Everyone is moving off the farms.) We surround ourselves with the like-minded and consume only media that agree with us. 2/ Computers have magnified this effect when it comes to elections by allowing politicians to choose their voters rather than the other way around. Gerrymandering used to be an art — now it is a science. The result is that in most Congressional districts the only race that matter is within the primary to get the nomination of the party that dominates that district. When one party has a small but crazy and intense base, the nomination increasingly goes to the intensely crazy.) If we are going to have ideologically uniform parties or even just one of two parties that votes entirely as a blog, then the US system really breaks down and we should just go to a parliamentary system where the governing party actually has the ability to legislate (and therefore also actually has accountability).
It is not realistic to expect ANY party to be able to maintain a 60 seat majority in the Senate and command 100% party-line loyalty on all important matters. The result, then, is gridlock and inaction. If things were just humming along in a more-or-less satisfactory manner, that might be OK. But with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, with health care costs bankrupting the country while over 40 million Americans lack health insurance, with global warming threatening the fragile ecological foundation of a human population of six billion, with trillion dollar structural budget deficits, with two wars going badly, etc., gridlock and inaction are not good things.