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Change? You Asked for It . . .

By Michael Kinsley
Friday, May 15, 2009

Even some loyal Democrats are feeling queasy about what will happen if, as seems likely, Al Franken wins the endless dispute over that Senate seat from Minnesota. With Arlen Specter's recent conversion, that would give the Democrats 60 seats, or three-fifths of the Senate, which is a filibuster-proof majority. With a Democratic majority in the House and a Democratic president, suddenly politics seems like a more serious business.

We have endured gridlocked government for so long that the idea of a president and a Congress from the same party enacting the legislation that they promised to enact while they were running for office seems almost unnatural. In the past half-century, one party has controlled both elected branches of government only about a third of the time. Meanwhile, this 60-votes threshold in the Senate has grown on our constitutional arrangements like a third leg coming out of the side of your head. The filibuster used to be a fairly obscure procedural device used mainly by Southerners to block civil rights legislation. And if you wanted to do it, you really had to do it. Actually stopping all other business to talk a piece of legislation to death was a fairly arduous process. Now the whole game is played out in the locker room. Or, as in chess, you look a few moves ahead and claim victory or admit defeat without bothering to go through the motions.

High-church moderates like to claim that a government with the power split between the two parties is desirable. They even claim sometimes that the voters consciously choose divided government, or that they are sending a message that they want sensible compromise and are tired of partisan bickering, etc., etc. Moderistos do not explain how a particular voter would go about doing these things. (How would you even know which way to split your ticket to make sure that you're not just canceling out the votes of a fellow divided-government enthusiast?)

Macaulay, the 19th-century British historian, famously described the American system as "all sail and no anchor." (Hackneyed quote No. 113 in the Columnist's Garden of Pompous Quotations.) I don't get it. Seems to me that most of the time we're almost all anchor and very little sail. But for at least the next two years, we'll be sailing with the wind at our backs and the anchor up our heave-ho me hearties, or something like that. (I think we'll just stay away from nautical metaphors from now on, if that's okay. But you get the point.) What we'll have is something close to a parliamentary system as in Britain or, in fact, most functioning democracies.

In a parliamentary system, it is assumed that the prime minister commands a majority in the legislature. If the prime minister loses the support of a majority, there is an election or, one way or another, someone else (or possibly the same person) gets a chance to try for a majority. In Britain, the Queen's Speech (spoken by the queen, though written by the prime minister) is a detailed list of legislative promises, just like its American equivalent, the State of the Union address (spoken by the president, though usually written by White House speechwriters). The difference is that the items in the Queen's Speech are likely to be enacted. A State of the Union address is like a department store bridal registry. Sure, ask for that program to put people on Mars (as George W. Bush did in 2004). Ask for Mars while you're at it. Nobody, including you, thinks you're going to get it.

The noisy right-wing brat pack, including Rush and his dittoheads, has been complaining since Newt was a pup about how Congress never gets anything done. It's a corrupt institution, frozen in time by invulnerable incumbency, full of members too busy serving lobbyists and filling out expense reports to attend to the people's business. Now, Congress is ready to get things done with a vengeance.

The president and his party in Congress face the terrifying prospect of being able to fulfill their campaign promises. They will have no excuse if there is no health-care reform or energy reform, or if there are and they are disasters.

The biggest shock, though, will probably be to the voters. For years they have called for "change," generally unspecified, while enjoying the status quo more than they cared to admit. (They want health-care reform provided that they can keep their own doctor. They want congressional term limits, but they like their own member enough to reelect him again and again.) They have demanded alchemy from their representatives -- expand our benefits and cut our taxes and balance the budget while you're at it -- and then staged hissy fits when the politicians didn't produce.

Now, when the voters demand change, they may well get it. We'll see how they like it.

kinsleym@washpost.com

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