Earlier this month, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein made quite a splash with a lengthy piece that, when boiled down to essentials, blamed the Republican party for what’s gone wrong in Washington, D.C. This weekend, they were back with a list of reforms to fix the problem.
I was a bit surprised that they didn’t suggest a constitutional amendment banning the GOP! After all, that seemed to follow most directly from their thesis.
But at any rate, here are their four ideas for alleviating partisanship.
1. Campaign finance reform to increase disclosures and cut down on coordination between parties and candidates.
2. Independent commissions for redistricting.
3. “Restoring majority rule” to the Senate by reforming the filibuster.
4. Boosting turnout through things like automatic registration.
What a terrible list. After going full bore on the Republican party for all the evils of partisanship, this is all they can come up with? Four ideas that have been bouncing around ill-attended, dull-as-dishwater Beltway panels for decades? Talk about a letdown!
I want to make a narrow point about this list, specifically their argument about reforming the filibuster, and then a broad point about their entire premise.
Narrow point: I’m all for a debate about the utility of the filibuster. I’ve written extensively on it in the past, and respect and appreciate people on the other side of the issue. What I do not respect, however, is the misappropriation of the English language to make a point.
That’s exactly what Mann and Ornstein have done here by invoking the concept of “majority rule.”
From a rhetorical standpoint, this is a great phrase to use. This is a democracy, after all, and majority rules. Who isn’t in favor of majoritarianism?
Well, for starters, the framers of the Constitution had their doubts, which is one of the reasons they invented the Senate! Put simply, a majority in the Senate does not have to equal a majority of the whole country. In fact, you can construct a majority coalition in the Senate with less than 20 percent of the total voting public being represented by the winning side.
In other words, "majority rule" has no relevant meaning when we apply it to the Senate. So can we stop misusing loaded, moralistic words like “majoritarian” to win an argument? If the facts support your case, you shouldn’t need to do that, right?
Broad point: Mann and Ornstein have accidentally reminded me of something that I occasionally forget: Much of the liberal establishment class in Washington does not understand what is happening to our country. It was an utterly tone-deaf and just plain incorrect idea to blame the GOP for all the ills of D.C. last week, but then to come back with this milquetoast list of reforms is unintentionally illustrative.
The American political process is starting to break down because of major changes to the political economy of this country. For half a century after World War II, the economy grew at such an incredible pace that we could have low taxes, high social welfare benefits, and a low deficit. This was one of the major reasons why there could be bipartisanship. Economic growth bankrolled these “great” compromises. It had very little to do with the foresight, courage, or moderation of the pols in Washington. They were just riding the wave generated by the private sector.
But all that seems to be over now. For more than a decade (not just the Great Recession but going back to 2000), economic growth has been far below its postwar average, and too low to keep the old regime afloat. You can’t have low taxes, high spending, and low deficits when the economy can’t break 3 percent growth.
This is something the D.C. establishment still does not seem to get. For years, their “farsighted,” bipartisan compromises were possible because the guys with the green eyeshades told them that the economy would grow to fill the gaps that they couldn’t fill. But now the economy can’t do that – so we have a mind-bogglingly large deficit and increased polarization in the political sphere.