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Now Here’s a Novel Idea

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By William Reinsch:

One of the themes of this year’s election cycle, not to mention the last two or three, is gridlock. Congress can’t get anything done. All it does is kick the can down the road through stop gap measures, temporary reauthorizations, or continuing resolutions. When they do get their act together, it tends to be at the last minute in order to avoid some looming disaster like a government shutdown, which usually means a poorly drafted bill, which, in turn, means the inevitable “technical corrections” bill a few months later to clean up the mess caused by legislating under pressure.

This is not the way it is supposed to work. Most of us, at least of my generation, did not escape middle school without having to read that little pamphlet, “How a Bill Becomes Law.” It very clearly describes the legislative process – bill introduction, hearings, committee consideration, and floor action in both bodies and then a conference committee to work out the differences, final action in both bodies and signature by the president. Of course, it turns out it’s complete fiction. The process may operate like that for naming a post office but not for anything important.

Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann’s book, It’s Even Worse than it Looks, provides an excellent version of what has happened and why. It even lays blame, although I’m not going to go there today, tempting as it is. Instead, I simply want to suggest a novel solution – they could actually vote! The essence of representative democracy is majority rule with appropriate protections for the minority. We the people don’t vote on every issue directly; we elect representatives to do that for us. If we don’t like their performance, we throw them out at the next electoral opportunity, which is coming up pretty quickly, as it happens. Our representatives, however, seem to have decided that voting can be bad for their political health. If you actually take a position, you alienate whoever is on the other side, and if there are a lot of them, chances are you’ll be toast in the next election.

If you think about it, that’s profoundly debilitating – if you do your job, you automatically risk being removed from it. When I was on the Hill a long time ago, there was a maxim about that which I’ve always remembered: you never lose if you vote on the losing side. That’s because the people who lost are happy you voted with them, and the people who won are happy because they won. These days, however, it appears to have been replaced by: you never lose if you don’t vote.

In addition to risk aversion, we also seem to have developed sore loser syndrome to a fine art. Nobody likes to lose, and on the Hill that has translated into, “If it looks like I’m going down, I’ll just block the vote.” That’s particularly easy in the Senate where one senator can usually stop the train in its tracks.  In the House, you need friends, but with the center eroding and the parties drifting to the extremes, it’s not hard to find people who will join a no-compromise coalition. 

As a result, we end up with episodes like the one we are going through right now in the appropriations process. The normal process is stalled because each party thinks the other is not acting in good faith. In the Senate, they each have enough votes to block action. In the House, as usual, the Republican leadership would prefer one direction, a conservative minority would prefer another, and the Democrats, knowing that their votes will be needed if anything is to pass, will demand a high price for their support. The Republican leadership, holding itself hostage to the Hastert rule (don’t bring anything to the floor not supported by a majority of the Republican Conference) doesn’t want to expose an intra-party split or have a bitter floor fight but also doesn’t want to rely on Democrats to pass something.

These are not new scenarios in either body, but unfortunately, they’ve become typical. Displaying weakness is unacceptable, compromise is a four letter word, and the response to disagreement is to punt. On top of that, they all seem to have lost their sense of humor, except possibly for Lindsey Graham and Al Franken. 

Getting back to the legislative world described in the pamphlet won’t be easy. Over the years, positions have hardened. Changes in leadership or even control of one or both bodies might help by at least creating a rationale for doing things differently, although that hasn’t worked in the past. In the end, the answer lies in the simplest of steps – just vote, even if that means exposing intra-party differences, increasing members’ political vulnerabilities, or, worst of all, losing. There are more lessons in defeat than in victory anyway, and if it helps to get our system back to where it should be, it’s worth learning them.
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William Reinsch is a Distinguished Fellow with the Stimson Center, where he works principally with the Center’s Trade21 initiative.

Photo credit: Architect of the Capitol via Flickr
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