Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Reid and Pelosi

I may be the Chair of Baker County Democrats but that doesn't mean I'm a shill for Democratic elected. When I don't like something; I say so. All that said, I'd like to try to make some things fairly clear about Reid and Pelosi. The Democrats have been castigated as spineless in some circles lately and there are some realities that ought to be clear that apparently aren't.

The House is now and has always been a pretty rambunctious and quick to react place. The House is where you are more likely to find the more extreme ends of the national political agendas. There are a number of reasons for this, partly at least due to the smaller demographics of the Congressional Districts in comparison to most significant elections. Senators, Governors, Secretary of States, and others all face state wide electorates and have to appeal to many more interests than the confines of CDs. In general terms, CDs are geographically small (there are exceptions like OR-2, which is larger than any state east of the Mississippi) and so their interests can be quite parochial. It has been said that getting Democrats to do anything is like herding cats, well Pelosi has an entire House of cats, both Parties.

House rules are a bit less confining than Senate rules which results in legislation that frequently gets quite a make over at Senate level and which though passed will not get past a Presidential veto. In the last two years the House passed quite a bit of fairly progressive legislation - that went nowhere. Speaker Pelosi gets branded as a lackluster leader by the malcontents, what they ignore is the near absolute hatred the right wing has for her. There is a reason for that. Legislation that dies at the Senate or is vetoed gets little press, with some exceptions like Iraq issues.

The lack of Impeachment is held against her and in all probability on the merits the Democrats could probably have gotten it passed. On the merits, alone. It would not have resulted in a Senate conviction, absolutely not have happened. What would have happened is that a President with 25% approval ratings would have gotten some more bad press and all business would have stopped for a partisan brawl. That partisan brawl would have occurred right before and during Primaries and Presidential General Election. A good sized piece of the electorate would have seen it as no more than Democratic pay back. On pure principle GW Bush should have been impeached and probably tried for some serious felonies, on principles. It would not have happened, the Senate Republicans would not have allowed it, period. So what Speaker Pelosi didn't do was something practically meaningless and politically deadly. The American public is not deeply immersed in the Constitution and reacts more emotionally than logically - the measure taken was that the elections counted for more. Tough on ideals, but we are talking about politics here.

Majority Leader Reid's life is considerably more complicated than Pelosi's. Sixty votes are required to end debate and send legislation to a vote. For the last two years Reid has had a plus one majority in his Caucus. That does not mean 51 reliable votes just because something has Democratic support. Senators tend to be more to the center of their Party as representatives, that having a lot to do with statewide campaigns. Senate candidates generally don't face low turnout elections as House members do every four years (every other cycle). Low turnouts tend to attract Party activist voters compared to the general electorate resulting in more conservative or more liberal point of views wins, not so in the Senate. I may find some of the Republican Senators to be troglodytes, but one need only compare them to their State's Republican House members to find that they are more centrist.

No Party leader is in a position to not know the outcome of their own Party's votes on legislation and will generally have a pretty good idea of the other side's votes before putting the matter to a vote. Failures are a public issue and not to be engaged in unless there is demonstrable public pressure available - in other words, the opposition can be made to pay for their opposition. Behind the facades, politics is a very rough game played for stakes that may not be publicly visible, in fact frequently are not. That isn't much about secrecy as it is about the public stomach or interest in knowing what it takes with 535 discreet points of view from discreet interests to get anything done. The news apparatus also knows this, if it were not the case C-span would have a huge viewership - it doesn't. It is quite possible for news organizations to know exactly what is going on - Congress leaks like a sieve - but there is no profitable point in the media putting the resources into it. Unless you're willing to look very hard, you do not see what it is that Party leadership is actually up against.

It is certainly true that Reid could have forced actual filibusters to take place, but there is an underlying reality - vetoes. Anything that required Reid to actually fight with a real filibuster would have been vetoed and failed in over-ride. There is a political cost for inaction within Congress, it is obvious with Congress polling worse than GWB. Before tying up the Senate with a publicly obvious play there has to be political advantage, not the feel good of punishing Republicans by forcing them to fulfill a filibuster.

As far as Franken and Burris are concerned, the Senate could not seat them because the legal requirements in their respective states have not been met. So what exactly does one expect the Senate to do?

Congress needs to have their feet held to the fire, but it pays to do so with some idea of what is going on.


Kevin said...

I can see some merit in both sides. I think we'd all agree that some principles are worth making a stand on regardless of their political viability. And I think that most of us would agree at least in principle that real politick requires playing the game intelligently.

The problem seems to me to be that few can agree on where to draw the line between the two.

Pelosi and Reid both appeared to acquiesce on some mighty important Bush policies and that naturally led to resentment among the ranks. And to an extent I share that resentment. But both leaders have no choice but to deal with a complexity of real politick that I really don't think many (including myself) can fully appreciate and appropriately factor in.

Tom Carter said...

I worked as a congressional liaison officer for a while, and in other jobs I had frequent contact with members and staff. I've worked directly with members, attended hearings, helped prepare and soothe nervous witnesses, worked with staff in their generally ratty offices, watched numerous House and Senate debates from the galleries. Which is to say, I kind of got to watch the sausage being made. Often not a pretty sight.

In my opinion, Congress in recent years has steadily become little more than a mob of bickering children. They slog it out over partisan issues, ignoring their real jobs. Some are better and more serious than others, of course, but taken as a group they've become worse than useless--they're dangerous.

We bemoan the slow transfer of power from the legislative branch to the executive, which has certainly happened. It began long before Bush II, and it will continue unless Congress reforms itself. That seems really unlikely.

This isn't an issue of parties. Neither chamber is working better under the Democrats than it did under the Republicans, and the Republicans when they were in the majority were a disaster.

President Obama will exercise the excessive power Congress has permitted the executive to hold. I hope he does; someone has to. And maybe he can improve things, but it's doubtful. Presidents of either party don't generally yield power.

Reid and Pelosi are pretty much worthless. Their Republican predecessors were no better. How will it all get turned around? I don't know; maybe it won't.

Chuck Butcher said...

I certainly don't disagree about the abrogation of power.

A lack of partisanship is not any more desirable than an excess of it. There is an actual difference between the parties and reason to maintain that.

I'll leave it to anyone that is interested enough to chronicle the meaness and twisted versions and trace it to whom.

I'll say this, nobody has shot anybody in Congress lately. Just how pretty politics has been through out our history is pretty interesting.

Kevin said...

You raise a fair point, Chuck. From everything I've read and watched (big time decumentary junky...), the worst that we've seen these last couple decades are child's play compared to what Jefferson, Adams and their partisans (especially Jefferson's) dished out to each other.

On the one hand it's comforting to know that as a nation we've survived worse.

But on the other hand it's disheartening to think that the House under Tip O'Neil or the Senate under Bob Dole were about as civil as it's ever going to get.