Amateur Hour in our “Ungovernable” Government
By Clark S. Judge, managing director, White House Writers Group, Inc. (www.whwg.com <http://www.whwg.com> ) and chair, Pacific Research Institute (www.pacificresearch.org <http://www.pacificresearch.org> ).
A great deal of talk has come out of Washington these last few weeks about the nation being “ungovernable.” What that means, of course, is that the White House can’t find sixty votes for health care overhaul in a senate that their party controls by sixty votes. So they are pushing the legislation through using budget reconciliation, lest, of course, the nation prove “ungovernable.”
As everyone knows by now, the Congress’ arcane reconciliation process was intended to cover strictly fiscal legislation — taxes, spending — not the creation of entirely new programs of massive sweep. But never mind. Unless we find a way to bend Congress to the President’s will, the nation is “ungovernable.”[# More #]
An number of critics – not all of them conservatives, The Economist magazine for example (lead editorial, February 20th-26th edition) – have pointed out that a breakdown of the legislative proves is not the real reason the health care is stalled. Lots of presidents have put through major and controversial laws with congresses much less favorable to the White House than this one.
President Reagan won lower tax rates, reduced discretionary spending, and a military build up that won the Cold War. President George H.W. Bush secured approval to turn back the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and dealt with major budget challenges. After the GOP took back to Congress in 1994, President Clinton and the GOP Congressional leadership developed a tumultuous but highly productive dynamic that delivered welfare reform, capital gains tax reductions, and a string of budget surpluses. President George W. Bush passed his domestic agenda and a number of free trade agreements, cut taxes twice, funded the Iraqi War, and got his financial rescue passage adopted virtually as designed.
None of these presidents whined about the nation being “ungovernable.” All understood the needs of negotiation and skills of compromise that are at the heart of our legislative process.
In their current blog posting (http://uchicagolaw.typepad.com/beckerposner/) economist and Nobel prize winner Gary Becker and Federal appeals judge Richard Posner discuss the filibuster and its role in American governance. As Becker notes, “the supermajority requirement of invoking closure to cut off Senate debate is useful protection not only to minorities, but also to overly hasty passage of controversial legislation. People on all positions will sometimes be frustrated by the need to have such a supermajority, but in the long run most of the time they will be happy that such rules are in effect.” Of the health care overhaul itself Posner writers, “Because the program is unpopular among the general public, its enactment by a simple majority in both Houses would raise a valid question about the representative character of Congress.”
I would go a step further. Part of the success of the American legislative process has been its durability. Yes, it is designed to produced deliberation, even on issues as superheated as health overhaul. Yes, it is designed to protect minority opinions against ephemeral majorities. But it is also designed to keep the nation united. Virtually every American president has understood this imperative and tempered his programs accordingly. Until now.
Upon taking office, not one member of the circle that runs the current White House was experienced in the executive role in the legislative process. The President was a backbench state senator for most of his government career, not one of those who put together the annual packages that keep each state going. His principal aides were more in the line of professional campaigners and political enforcers than legislative negotiators. In the subtle process of give and take, of consensus and coalition building, these men and women are amateurs.
Even if it results in the health overhaul package passing, the resort to reconciliation reflects weakness and ineptness in the West Wing. This is one reason for the expensive and grotesque deals that have been struck along the way. As someone who has played at the very most senior levels of the legislative process said in my presence recently, “You never go for just sixty senate votes.” Never. Whatever the party breakdown. Why? The 59th and sixtieth vote becomes so expensive. An 80-vote bill, he said, is much cheaper than a sixty-vote bill, because no one can hold you up. No one can demand a “Louisiana Purchase” or a “Cornhusker Kickback.”
But the amateurs at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue only understand campaigning and enforcement, not give and take. It is easy to dismiss the value of experience in politics and government, but, particularly in developing legislation, they count. The nation is governable when those in charge understand governance.