April 22, 2012 · 0 Comments
By Marie Burns:
Tom Friedman, New York Times columnist, author of books and pundit wherever they’ll have him, has given up on the U.S.A. Maybe he is dismayed by the bashing he took for his last column, which Jason Linkins of the Huffington Post ridiculed as self-parody, Steve Benen of the “Rachel Maddow Show” called “confused,” and Robert Parry, in Consortium News, labeled “his latest catastrophic idea.” Maybe Friedman is blue because instead of winning yet another Pulitzer – the prizes were announced last week – Friedman won Eschaton’s “One True Wanker of the Decade.”
In any event, in his column today, titled “Down with Everything,” Tom Friedman declares that “we will never be a great a country again, no matter who is elected.” Oh my. To reach this conclusion, Friedman first checked in with one of the stable of experts he calls when he needs someone to agree with him. Today Friedman’s expert is disenchanted neocon Francis Fukuyama, whose 15 minutes of fame came two decades ago when he predicted the end of history. (History did not, as it turned out, end.) Friedman says even before he called Fukuyama, he “could detect” what Fukuyama would say, thus making Fukuyama a particularly desirable expert witness. Fukuyama told Friedman, “… we forget that government was … created to act and make decisions.” That is hard to remember.
One could write an entire column on what Friedman doesn’t know about how the federal government works. Oh, wait. Friedman just did. Actually, Friedman does correctly name some of the factors that contribute to the current dysfunction of Congress, but he has no idea what causes this dysfunction, perhaps because he doesn’t want to admit that it is largely a one-party problem. Friedman is a drafter and original signatory of the “Both Sides Do It” Oath. His oath forces him to invent a remarkably twisted version of recent history.
Why was it that the federal government could once “act and make decisions? According to Friedman, “the cold war … was a hugely powerful force compelling compromise between the parties.” Ah, it was us against them. Nowadays I suppose there are no international problems forcing the parties to work together. If only Putin would rear his head, surely we would once again have that agreeable bipartisan Congress whistling while they worked, as in happy days of yore.
Next Friedman explains some of the institutional problems that have reared their ugly heads absent Putin’s. “For starters,” Friedman writes, “we’ve added more checks and balances to make decision-making even more difficult – such as senatorial holds now being used to block any appointments by the executive branch or the Senate filibuster rule, effectively requiring a 60-vote majority to pass any major piece of legislation, rather than 51 votes.” That is not true. The Senate hold is an informal procedure that senators have used since the 1970s and possibly, infrequently, before that. “The first filibuster in U.S. Senate history began on March 5, 1841.” The hold and the filibuster are not “checks and balances we’ve added.” But they are the primary procedural mechanisms used to halt Senate action.
Prior to the 1960s, Senators used the filibuster sparingly. “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” did not represent a typical day in the Senate. As Steve Benen, then writing for the Washington Monthly, noted in late 2010, “there were more filibusters in the last two years than there were in the 1950s and 1960s combined,” and the Senate invoked cloture (ended a filibuster) more times in the previous two years than they had in sum total between 1919 and 1982. In other words, the recent explosion in use of the filibuster is stunning. Who is responsible for all this filibustering? As a chart prepared by one of Kevin Drum’s readers demonstrates, Senate Republicans account for “virtually the entire increase in the use of the filibuster over the past half century…. Republicans are the party of obstruction, and they have been for more than four decades now.”
There are no records for which party has put more holds on pending legislation or nominations because the holds are “secret.” The names of the Senators who call for the holds are known only to the majority and minority leaders. Based on the nature of the legislation that has been put on hold and the party of the nominating president, it would appear that Republicans also invoke secret holds more often than do Democrats.
Why is this? From 1955 to 1981, Democrats controlled the Senate. For a quarter of a century, Republicans were accustomed to being the minority party. In the ensuing years, control of the Senate has switched back and forth between the parties; each party has been in the majority for roughly the same length of time. My guess is that Republicans, once they got a taste of power, just could not give it up during those terms Democrats regained control of the Senate. I cannot get into the minds of Republican senators (thankfully), so this is just a theory. But it’s a theory based on what has happened in the Senate, not on extraneous occurrences in the big wide world. Abuses of the filibuster and hold have nothing to do with the fall of the Soviet Union. Claiming that the end of the cold war accounts for increased partisanship is pure nonsense.
Friedman is closer to accurate when he writes, “the Internet, the blogosphere and C-Span’s coverage of the workings of the House and Senate have made every lawmaker more transparent – making back-room deals by lawmakers less possible and public posturing the 24/7 norm.” Why Friedman doesn’t mention cable news I cannot guess. He seems unaware of CNN, Fox “News” and MSNBC, which have done far more to air partisan punditry than has C-SPAN. It may be true, however, that C-SPAN accounts for much of the ramped-up rhetoric on Capitol Hill and has put the kibosh on some of the horse-trading that used to go on in committee. Sen. Pat Moynihan, who favored cameras in the House and Senate chambers, opposed them in committee hearings precisely because senators would not want to be heard negotiating legislation (can’t find the link). While Web blogging is certainly a huge source of partisan commentary and often drives cable news shows, television news has a wider audience. Sixty-six percent of people surveyed last year said television is their main source of news; 41 percent cited the Internet.
Huge Expansions! Friedman writes, “And, finally, the huge expansion of the federal government, and the increasing importance of money in politics, have hugely expanded the number of special-interest lobbies and their ability to influence and clog decision-making.” Although Republicans like to claim there has been a “huge expansion” of the federal government, it isn’t exactly true. As the linked chart demonstrates, over the past century, there has been a slow but steady expansion of the federal government as a percentage of gross national product. (There was a dramatic spike in federal spending during World War II.) The Bush recession also led to an increase in federal spending, partly to make up for the decrease in state and local spending and partly to make up for decreased private spending, which is what defines recessions. Friedman is correct about “the increased importance of money in politics” and the expansion and influence of lobbies. It is peculiar, however, that he does not even allude to the Supreme Court’s role as facilitator. This is doubly peculiar because in this column, Friedman cites former Senator Russ Feingold, the Feingold half of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law, a law which Republican-appointed justices of the Supreme Court eviscerated.
Friedman’s Plan to Save America, via Fukuyama, is to eliminate Senate holds and routine filibusters and to create a bipartisan budget committee to draw up budgets which would be presented to “Congress in a single, unamendable, up-or-down vote.” Friedman would have the committee (a) listen to the Congressional Budget Office, and (b) be “insulated from interest-group pressures.” Eliminating Senate holds is do-able, at least in the short term. The majority leader could just say no. Curbing the filibuster is not impossible, but it is not likely to happen in a nearly equally-divided Senate where both parties have recent experience being in the minority. Should the filibuster be reserved for extraordinary measures? Sure. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who has plenty of experience dealing with the Senate, said recently that the one Congressional structural reform that is needed is “to get rid of the filibuster in the Senate.” As for the feasibility of the idea of creating a budget super-committee, I refer you to the recent spectacular failure of the joint deficit-reduction super-committee. And if you think members of Congress can be “insulated from interest-group pressures,” then you must favor detention and isolation of elected representatives – and maybe brainwashing. Great ideas, all, but – Not. Going. To. Happen.
I don’t especially mind a New York Times columnist writing an innocuous piece on the need for good government. I don’t mind naïve, unrealistic proposals on how to achieve better government. Personally, I favor some Constitutional Amendments. And, heck, world peace. These aren’t going to happen either. What I do mind is a columnist who depicts Congressional gridlock as if both sides of the aisle were equally responsible for it.
They are not. As Barney Frank said, “I have a bumper sticker for us (Democrats): ‘We’re Not Perfect, But They’re Nuts.’”
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com