July 17, 2013

Time for a new souvenir T-shirt in Washington: “Democrats (nearly) went ‘nuclear’ and all they got were a few lousy appointments.”

Yes, it’s good news that Richard Cordray’s long stint in limbo at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is over. The idea that this supremely qualified man went unconfirmed for two years is a disgrace. But the notion that Harry Reid had to push the Senate to the brink to get this and a few other forgettable appointments okayed — quick, can you even name them the day after? — says more about GOP-fueled dysfunction than anything else.

It took a rare three-hour group-grope of 98 senators Monday night to produce this mouse of a result. And while kudos are due to Reid and John McCain for wrangling an 11th-hour deal, it’s important to be clear: The ratio of brinkmanship to actual policy accomplishment in the capitol has moved distressingly close to infinity.

The revealing thing is that this is not how insiders see the situation. The standards for “achievement” have been debased. As a result, Washington increasingly resembles depressed people who have no self-awareness that they are depressed. These are always the truly tragic cases.

“It’s almost hard to measure the ramifications that would emanate from such an action,” said former Republican senator Olympia Snowe of Reid’s threat to change the rules to permit a simple majority to approve executive appointments.

Not lifetime judges, mind you. Not actual legislation. Just a majority vote to give a president the basic team he asks for. “Once you go down that path,” Snowe told the New York Times, “you cannot know how this will reverberate on the institution for generations.”

For generations? My! Slopes don’t get more slippery.

Still, I’ll confess I’ve evolved on the filibuster. I used to be a pure and simple toss-the-damned-thing-out man. This was related to my being a parliamentary-envy kind of guy. The filibuster is not in the Constitution, my logic ran. I believe in majority rule, and want a government to have a chance to enact the program on which it campaigned and then be held accountable by voters at the next election.

How else, I thought, can we make our institutions more equal to 21st-century challenges? Besides, parliamentary envy has a long and distinguished pedigree in the United States. Woodrow Wilson first came to prominence in part because of his idea that a presidential “mandate” could approximate parliamentary-style governance.

All this is vastly preferable to endless gridlock and finger-pointing, I reckoned. Scrapping the filibuster was the only way to get there.

But one night some months back, I was prompted to rethink my position by a conversation with former Republican senator Judd Gregg, who served in the Senate for 18 years. Honoring the voice of the minority is what sets the Senate (and U.S. governance more broadly) apart, he said. You don’t want the Senate to be another House of Representatives, with a majority that works its will and streamrolls dissenting views. The result would be a government that lurches back and forth as popular majorities wax and wane.

Over time, he argued, the requirement to take minority views seriously into account — enforced by the blunt instrument of the filibuster, even if it’s not in the Constitution — makes U.S. governance durably inclusive, even if the result sometimes looks like paralysis.

In other words, he said, when it comes to abuses — and there are abuses, make no mistake — mend the filibuster, don’t end it.

Turns out many of our leaders change their position on the filibuster depending on whose ox is being gored. “Defending the Filibuster: The Soul of the Senate,” by longtime senior Senate aides Richard Arenberg and Robert Dove, is an invaluable resource for those looking to indulge their secret filibuster fetish. Joe Biden spoke passionately against the ‘nuclear option’ Reid just threatened back in 2005. Then-Senator Obama said in 2008 that getting rid of the filibuster would make partisanship worse.

As one influential Democrat told me Tuesday, after the compromise averting ‘nuclear’ war had been struck, the filibuster remains an essential tool. “The Democratic Party’s capacity to do good is less than the Republican party’s capacity for evil,’’ this person said, citing the recent excision of food stamps from the House-passed farm bill. “So the ability to stop things may be more important.”

In the feuding wasteland that is modern Washington, this assessment is grim but plausible.

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