On Saturday Nashville’s Congress Critter Rep. Jim Cooper, an unabashed Blue Dog Democrat, met with a small group of local bloggers at a coffee house near me. It was just a chance to chat and answer any questions we might have (I understand he held a similar get-together with the traditional media last week). Sean Braisted has the audio of the event here.
I don’t go to too many blogger events and when I do I try to keep my mouth shut as much as possible. But we all had an informative conversation and my fellow bloggers are a knowledgeable bunch who asked some good questions. I was especially intrigued to learn that Rep. Cooper is thinking about buying a Nissan Leaf. Knowing that Mayor Karl Dean, Sen. Lamar Alexander, ex-Senator Bill Frist and practically the entire Frist family are all Leaf drivers, I think we can now call the Leaf the status symbol of Tennessee politicians.
One of the things we discussed was Washington’s dysfunction. Cooper expressed the view that we have the worst of both worlds, because Congress is functioning as a parliamentary system, without the benefits of such a system, which he said is a huge problem for getting anything done. Precisely, what he said was:
We’ve lost our Congress. We’ve gradually lost it over time. It’s now a parliament. Used to be Congressmen would vote their party 70-80% of the time, now it’s 95% plus, otherwise you’re an outcast, pariah.
We’ve also lost majority rule in Congress because — the filibuster it’s obvious, the power of the minority — but starting with Speaker Hastert in the House, they say it openly: we only listen to a majority of the majority. And that basically means with Republicans holding 240 seats, you basically have 120 Republican votes, and the rest of Congress be damned. So both the House and the Senate now have a filibuster-type problem but it’s only acknowledged in the Senate.
Far be it from me to contradict someone who actually works in the House of Representatives, but from the perspective of an observer, that’s just not how it looks. I’m not sure how you can decry partisanship and in the next breath complain about a loss of majority rule, either. But as someone who has been observing our broken system for the past decade or so, I just don’t see this as the reason Congress can’t get anything done.
Maybe I’m saying this because I’m a progressive sporting permanent tire tracks from constantly getting thrown under the bus, but we can all remember some time when Democrats were in the majority and a Democratic-caucusing politician like Ben Nelson or Joe Lieberman or Bart Stupak hijacked a piece of legislation to make sure their pet issue was addressed or some special interest was appeased. And that will exist regardless of any Senate or House supermajority rules (actual or implicit), because there will always be what Digby long ago referred to as “the pampered little prince or princess who thinks he or she should be running everything and they will hold up the process regardless.” She wrote then:
In the days when legislation was cobbled together on a bipartisan basis, you didn’t want too much discipline or you couldn’t get the other side to cross lines when you needed them. But the realignment has solidified the partisan divide on the basis of ideology, philosophy and region. The Republicans have adapted already and understand that their job is to obstruct when in the minority and steam roll when in the majority. The Democrats are still living in the past.
Such words are anathema to folks like Jim Cooper, I’m sure. And I can understand why. But from my observer’s chair, it seems like too much has changed in the world for anyone to think we can go back to the time when politicians operated away from the glare of the masses and there weren’t two dozen lobbyists per congressman, and the special interest groups didn’t suck all the air out of the national dialogue, and money wasn’t equated with speech. Back then, Americans got their information from a few trusted sources who could reliably be counted on to at least not spread crazy shit like healthcare reform requires patients be implanted with microchips. Those must have been the good ol’ days, but they are gone for good.
Yes, Americans are more engaged in their governance than ever before. But I feel like we have less power than ever before. We’re more splintered. The gatekeepers are gone from every entrance, thanks to the internet and new media, and people are self-segregating into virtual communities based on rigid ideology and issue-based interests. With modern American life fractured, of course our government reflects that. There are very few issues that unite us all, enabling us to speak with a loud enough voice to get anyone’s attention anymore. That opens the door for those players who will always get Washington’s attention: the people with the money. That’s what talks, and that’s why certain people can always get their way. It’s why John Boehner is powerless against the Tea Party, not because this fringe group of crackpots is so powerful, but because of the corporate money behind them.
That’s how it looks to me. As an observer. I could be wrong.
I really don’t have any answers here. I think things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. I’m not advocating Republican-style obstruction, I’m just trying to counter the view that all we need are more bipartisan hugs and everything will be awesome again. Democrats are really great at crossing the aisle; they do it all the damn time. News flash: we’re not getting awesomer.
I’m thinking Washington will have to get irrelevant before it can get relevant again. I’m thinking we’ll need to look elsewhere for our answers — people power, maybe use social media to try to unite some of these self-selected virtual communities. We definitely need to operate on the cultural level, not the political one.
Congress can operate with an all-time low approval rating of 13% because the people don’t matter; maybe what the people need to do is make Congress not matter. Not to be all Oprah-sounding here, but we’re going to have to take our power back and just get done what it is we want to get done. We’re certainly not going to see things change by hoping Congress will do its job.
That’s how it looks to me. As an observer.