The smarter elements in Washington DC are starting to pick up on the fact that it’s not tactical errors on the part of the president that make it hard to get things done, it’s the fact that the country has become ungovernable….
We’re suffering from an incoherent institutional set-up in the senate. You can have a system in which a defeated minority still gets a share of governing authority and participates constructively in the victorious majority’s governing agenda, shaping policy around the margins in ways more to their liking. Or you can have a system in which a defeated minority rejects the majority’s governing agenda out of hand, seeks opening for attack, and hopes that failure on the part of the majority will bring them to power. But right now we have both simultaneously. It’s a system in which the minority benefits if the government fails, and the minority has the power to ensure failure.
While the most obvious impediment is the filibuster (the requirement of sixty senators out of 100 to allow a vote on a bill), two other structural issues are at work: the demise of powerful committee chairmen, and the concurrent decline of the importance of patronage (‘pork’) and the rise of the importance of campaign contributions.
Before the Watergate era, congressional committee chairmen were very powerful. If you wanted legislation passed, and it involved a particular committee (or if the chairman decided that it should involve his committee), you had to get the chairman on board. There were problems with this system: civil rights legislation was probably held up by at least a decade due to the influence of powerful Southern chairmen. But it did have the advantage that if someone wanted to break ranks, he could be punished: all of his patronage money that went to his district or state could be killed. You can kiss that hospital or defense contract goodbye. This maintained party loyalty. Now, it’s much harder to do this, although it’s still possible, if enough senators want to play hardball.
The second structural change is that patronage isn’t as important as it used to be. More accurately, campaign finance has become more important. This results in two ways to weaken party solidarity. First, if you can raise ‘your own’ money, independent of the party, you don’t have to be that loyal. Second, it makes politicians beholden to their donors–and, thus, unable to vote the party line (this conflict is usually, though not always, more of a problem for Democrats). As the old joke goes, an honest politician is one, who once bought, stays bought. If you have to choose between TV ads and patronage, the TV ads, particularly when so much of politics is tribal, are probably more important (although bringing home the boodle still matters).
These two problems magnify the effect of the filibuster–there’s no really effective way to keep your own people in line to get the sixty votes needed for cloture.