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Just a quick observation prompted by events in recent weeks. These events are unrelated, yet they form a pattern. Together, they put Washington on the hot seat and shine a spotlight on its (questionable) ability to act in the public interest.

Specifically, if…

…despite an offshore oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico so devastating that it’s even shocking the sensibilities of Republicans, Congress can’t pass an energy bill that actually focuses on sustainable alternatives rather than kowtowing to the “drill baby drill!” reactionaries;

(and for the record, Kerry/Graham/Lieberman in its current form isn’t a solution, it’s inexcusably weak tea)

…despite a new anti-immigration law in Arizona so blatantly nativist and draconian that it offends the sensibilities of decent people everywhere, and not only violates the Constitution but undermines international relations—all counterpointed with multiple immigrant-rights rallies only weeks apart, sponsored by organizations as resolutely mainstream as the National Council of Churches, and in numbers that match and often dwarf the Tea Party gatherings that have so preoccupied the minds of the mainstream media—Congress can’t pass a reform bill that restores some fairness and rationality to our immigration policy;

(and it continues to mystify me how the crowd demonizing “illegals” seems willfully ignorant of the arbitrary and capricious history of immigration law in this country)

…despite the now obvious self-serving malfeasance of Goldman Sachs, emblematic of the behavior of Wall Street in general when the regulatory leash is off, Congress can’t pass a financial regulation bill that actually imposes serious constraints on corporate behavior…

(and as it stands the GOP seems to think even allowing debate constitutes a concession, while Chris Dodd has conceded that a genuinely independent consumer protection agency couldn’t pass even the Dem-majority Senate, and other Dems find the idea of reimposing Glass-Steagall restrictions to be too radical)

…then our governing structure is really fundamentally broken at a structural level.

These are among the most crucial issues facing the country today, problems that have been allowed to fester for years or even decades, things that deeply affect the lives of millions of people. It’s the job of our government, its very raison d’être, to address important public matters like these. And yet even in the wake of one of the most profoundly change-driven elections in living memory, Congress continues to struggle to formulate and pass even the most tepid reforms. It’s not that there’s a shortage of good ideas out there; it’s that they’re not being reflected in actual public policy.

If the protracted health-care debate taught us anything, it’s that the very least we could possibly ask for, the most hesitant surface-scratching imitation of actual reform, is apparently the most we can expect our legislators to get through the institutional sausage-making machinery.

There are lots of reasons for this. The corrupting influence of corporate money, the structural deformity of the two-party system, the momentum-slowing inertia of the Senate rules, the institutional ideology of mainstream media… (none of which, I note in passing, were factors created or even imagined in the Constitution)… but the in-depth analysis can await another day. For now, I’ll leave the observation to stand on its own.

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8 Responses to “It’s like Congress is being tested”
  1. RAB says:

    I’ll be interested to see you revisit this topic in more detail!

    Objectively speaking, how effective was Congress in pursuing a conservative agenda back in the days of Lott and Frist and Hastert, with a Republican majority and a Republican president? It seems to me they were more effective than the Democrats are today at getting their stuff done…but that impression is purely based on my subjective feelings of horror at the time and might not be supported by objective data.

    You see where I’m going with this: if the right did a better job reaching their goals a few years back, then the problem might not be so much the structural instabilities of of our government — though it is clearly on the fritz — but the epic fail of Democratic party leadership.

  2. Interesting questions. I share your overall impression… although to be honest I’m not inclined to do the kind of research required to answer it “objectively.” That seems more like the makings of an academic study than a blog post.

    I think the GOP, especially in the last 15 years or so, has been much more effective at maintaining party discipline and unity in the face of controversial votes. The Dems, OTOH, tend to be more ideologically diverse—a broader coalition with more independent-minded individual legislators. In an ideal deliberative democracy, this would be a good thing. In a system limited by a two-party duopoly and the other problems I mentioned, however, it manifests itself as “weakness.”

    None of which is to deny that the Dem leadership—and to be specific, Harry Reid in the Senate—has indeed been staggeringly inadequate.

  3. Vamberfield says:

    Good observations. I don’t know why, but it seems to me there has been a movement in American politics for the last few decades that spreads the idea that the government should sit around doing nothing, in a state of partisan gridlock or other procedural paralysis. I don’t know who or what is to blame beyond relentless anti-government rhetoric from the right wing, but it seems to encompass not just the usual right wing groups, but also people who aren’t overtly political or particularly interested in public policy.

    Suffice to say, changes need to be made to the process of making laws that simply makes them easier to pass. The government shouldn’t just be allowed to govern if it feels like it, it is compelled to govern by its very existence.

  4. You want good laws passed, and bad laws either prevented or amended to make them better and saner. A certain amount of road-blockage is to be expected, no matter who’s running the show or where the show is in the first place. No?

  5. “A certain amount” is a very broad phrase. Methodical deliberation is one thing; intractable logjams are another.

  6. Andrew says:

    Certainly the way you see them events is quite interesting, my view of these things is quite similar, still on some questions I must question your objectivity.

  7. Kevin Smith says:

    Republicans were too nice in the past. When Dems controlled everything, they tried to be nice, take the high ground, so to speak. Dems prefer scorched earth policies. Obamacare is an example. They do not negotiate. They press forward without compromise, which usually results in us getting screwed. Consider Reagan. He got his tax cuts in exchange for the Dems cutting spending. The cuts never came. I pray the Republicans will this time not give in to the Dems’ bullying. Stand firm. Object to all their policies, do not compromise on the balanced budget amendment. Object to all their judicial appointees. In a word, get some “balls.” See http://www.rightwingagenda.blogspot.com.

  8. Nick says:

    Without a doubt those were some troubled times, but the way I see it things are still not going better these days either, but by the contrary they all drift for the worse … It is too bad you know, given the way in which they started!

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