Let's do nothing in the US Senate just a little bit longer
Nov 26, 2012

Let's do nothing in the US Senate just a little bit longer

Lindsay Graham
For years I have decried the broken US Senate and its rules - exacerbated by the filibuster - that make it a hopelessly ineffective body that, through its inability to competently pass legislation, is inherently conservative. The misuse of the arcane filibuster rule, by which a supermajority of 60 of 100 seats is needed to prevent the minority to indefinitely stall any legislation they don't like, allowed the Republicans do thwart most aspects of the Democratic agenda for the first two years of Barack Obama's Administration, despite a whirlwind of genuinely good bills coming from the House from Cap and Trade to Immigration Reform. The filibuster needs to be reformed.

For years I have decried the intransigence of Republicans who had signed onto Grover Norquist's "No tax increases under any circumstances" pledge that resulted in Republicans refusing to accept the end of the Bush tax cuts on the rich at any cost. Thankfully Romney lost, but the moment in the GOP primary debate where every single candidate agreed that they would not accept a deal that was 10% revenue increases for 90% spending cuts was indicative of precisely this intransigence that prevents passing anything. Over the last week, prominent Republicans have been abandoning Grover Norquist's pledge, opening them up to the possibility of actually passing a deal with Obama that gives him his key victory on the Bush tax cuts for the rich.

Hopefully, neither of these things I have wanted will occur. Hopefully, filibuster reform will not pass on its one day opportunity on Jan 1st, and hopefully the kind of grand bargain on spending and taxes will not occur before the Dec 31st expiry date.

On filibuster reform:
Let us talk simple realpolitik. The filibuster is most effective in one situation: when a single party controls the House, the Senate, and the White House. It then allows a 41 seat minority in the Senate to effectively prevent the other party which controls so much from doing anything. This was the situation from 2008-2010. But since 2010, and continuing today, the Republicans don't need the filibuster for any legislation that cross both floors, because they control the House. As long as the House is solidly Republican (and from today's vantage point that is unlikely to change in 2014 or 2016), the Republicans no longer need the filibuster in the Senate for many things. There are still Senate specific issues, like nominations, that don't hit the floor of the House, and filibuster reform would still prevent those, but the tooth has been taken out of it.

There is, however, a possibility that in 2016 the Democrats will lose all three. Romney was an exceedingly bad candidate, and the GOP will likely have a better candidate next round. In four years, at current paces, we will have neither the kinds of major new advances (like Obamacare) coming from this administration that people can cheer for and, most likely, a second recession. 8 years of Democratic rule where nothing gets done and the economy is in the tank in contrast to a revived Republican party would be devastating, demographic shifts aside. The House probably stays the same, Republican, given the rural/urban bias in the districting that was exacerbated by redistricting following the last census under a majority of GOP governors. And there is a question mark on the senate.

The position we are faced with is this: For the next 2-4 years there is little benefit to Democrats in removing the filibuster in the Senate because of their loss in the House, but there is a chance that they will be in the reverse position of the 2008 GOP in 2016, and will desperately need the filibuster to prevent the kinds of reforms of GOP leadership would try to prevent. In other words, filibuster reform right now would defang a policy right when the GOP no longer needs it and before there is a chance the Democrats need it. As much as I cheer for Elizabeth Warren, the newly elected heavily progressive senator who is championing pushing for the start of January filibuster reform, in this case I hope it does not succeed.

On the grand bargain: 
Republican's, for the most part, are not idiots. They know a good deal when they see one. And right now they have a great one. Rightly or wrongly, they are managing to build on their successes over the last couple years in the debt negotiations to have the basis for a trade where they take a (very marginal) sacrifice on tax cuts to the rich, in exchange for massive, massive spending cuts including putting entitlement reform on the tablet. The starve the beast strategy has been GOP orthodoxy for years: refuse to fund the government and cut taxes when they are in charge, watch the deficit explode, then get the Democrats to be the ones doing all the cutting of programs when they are in charge. The no taxes pledge isn't about actually ever refusing to raise taxes, it is a bluff to try to get as amazing a deal as they can get in exchange for the tiniest of tax cuts they can imagine. With that amazing deal on the tablet, it is no surprise that Republicans are moving away from the Norquist pledge. They want that deal. If they get their way, Obama will cut the size of government more in one bill that Bush did in 8 years (ignoring the increases Bush added), in exchange for keeping the lion's share of the tax cuts that Bush implemented and sacrificing merely a small rate change on the rich.

Democrats should let Dec 31st come and go, let the tax cuts expire. On Jan 2nd, they can come in and propose a clean untethered bill that cuts taxes for everybody making under 250k to the same amount as the Bush era tax cuts. Dare the Republicans to vote no on that, and if they do, hold it up to the entire country to shame them. The Democrats are in a great negotiating position if they simply do nothing and let the result they want come by default.

The amusing part about the sequester, where automatic defense and spending cuts will kick in unless a deal is created, is that I would not be particularly saddened if it occurred. Yes the spending cuts are deep, and these will need to be dealt with. But when has there ever been the serious possibility of cuts of this size to the US military? They do not go far enough, not even close, but a half trillion over a decade is better than nothing and actually would go a long way to resolving the deficit. Of course, the chances of these cuts occurring in the long term are almost nill since both the Democrats and the Republicans firmly oppose them (while only the Democrats oppose the spending cuts, making it a lopsided incentive). Nonetheless, having a portion of time where these cuts were seriously be considered and, perhaps, resulting in a smaller component added to whatever package is eventually agreed on.

After years of me wishing the GOP would actually do something, opposed to stalling, I have to turn around and hope that the Democrats spend the next month and a bit stalling and doing nothing. Except, of course, for my hopes of a lame duck poker legalization bill. They should do that. 

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

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1 comment:

Elipsis said...

You're counting on a pretty dismal 2014 and 2016. I think that Democrats will take the brunt of the heat in the event of a second recession, but I'm not sure it's as likely as you seem to think.

I'm also skeptical about the January 2nd proposal. Given the present deficit I don't know that "Hooray we cut taxes!" is actually the right move. It's practically an empty P.R. move akin to the Mission Accomplished banner. "We did won and now we're going to represent the shit out of that middle class," might buy them some (very) short term support, but ultimately it's not going to pay for anything.

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