The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Saturday, July 02, 2005

Sirota fingers those horrible Congressional Democrats

What are they good for?
Absolutely nothing

There is a natural tension between the desire for ideological and organisational cohesion and the hard fact that both elements have been largely engineered out of the US system of government by those pesky Founding Fathers. They could have chosen a parliamentary system, but didn't.

American parties are, by their very nature, non-programmatic. The parties in Congress, as confirmed by DW-NOMINATE and the like, are more ideologically separate than they were in the middle of the last century, but their is a gaping gulf between that and the sort of direction that, say, a British prime minister can exercise in driving his legislative agenda.

Might as well be on a different planet.

That said, the level of incoherence achieved by Congressional Dems seems, I would suggest, far from wholly explained by institutional factors.

The Medicare bill of 2003, for instance. And the bankruptcy bill of earlier this year.

David Sirota has a list of These We Have Loathed.

And pieces on recent indiscretions: the energy bill; CAFTA [1]; on a - symbolic - provision to bar government contracts to companies that evade US taxes.

The much-debated question for the Dems is, Can they get a tent which is big enough to give them a Congressional majority but small enough to allow the leadership some hope of keeping their troops from wandering off the reservation on important votes.

The 40:40:20 nation idea (the ratio of self-styled conservatives, moderates and liberals as generally reported by the polls) would suggest that the Republicans (who need 25% of moderates to make a majority) should find coherence much easier than Democrats (who need 75% of moderates to do so).

But, as Professor CEM Joad would say, It all depends what you mean by 'conservative'. The GOP has centrifugal forces just as strong but, for the moment, they are better controlled.

Ds of necessity need a larger contingent of DINOs [2] than Rs need of RINOs in order to gain control of Congress. And, according to one view, control is everything [3]. Yellow dogs - any fauna - elected as a Democrat should be made welcome. Once they've voted for Reid or Pelosi, they can spend their time sniffing GOP behinds to their hearts' content - or so the argument goes.

The possibilities are intriguing: the whole nuclear option debate has put the rules in play, in the Senate, primarily, but perhaps also in the House.

In the Senate, for example, even under current rules, a bill can be placed on the calendar, rather than given to a committee. And, whilst it's usual for the Majority Leader alone to call bills off the calendar, there is not, as I recall, a rule to that effect.

A conservative coalition in a nominally Dem-controlled Senate could therefore have its own bills debated despite Dem majorities in the committees.

The House would, I suspect, be trickier, with the Rules Committee to deal with; but its rules are easier to change, in theory: simple majority, new rules at the start of each Congress.

The alternative for the Dems would be to settle for greater ideological cohesion at the cost of eternal minority status. Unthinkable, surely? Even if winning is devalued by manoeuvres such as those suggested, for the Dems not to strive for victory would be downright un-American!

Besides, constituencies largely determine the ideology of their representatives; and, because of the tendency for primary voters to be more extreme than voters in the general, the effect is magnified. Stephanie Herseth could no more get elected in Harlem than Charles Rangel in South Dakota!

But - it's one thing for a Blue Dog to vote for a partial birth abortion bill to shore up his base; they'd have elected a Republican if they'd thought he'd vote otherwise.

But for the Dem votes for the bankruptcy bill, that justification doesn't wash.

It was money that talked. (And pitifully small sums compared with the bunce the loan-sharks will squeeze out of the bill.) It's the venality, not the conservativism, that should be the target of liberals' ire.

Conclusion: the Congressional Democrats, whether Sirota and I like it or not, are condemned to a regime of make-do and muddle for the foreseeable future. And I doubt whether that comes as any surprise to anyone.

  1. I'm not sure where to put CAFTA on the scale of infamy. I'm disposed to support free trade, but I'm also open to evidence that what looks like free trade in the text is, in context, one-way protectionism.

    The opponents of the treaty really haven't done that great a job in persuading free-traders that CAFTA speaks with forked tongue.

  2. There's a definitional problem, of course. Not every Dem Senator that voted for the bankruptcy bill was at the most conservative end of DW-NOMINATE 1st coordinate scores of Senate Dems. Since no Dem (except Zell Miller!) had a more conservative score in the 108th than the most liberal Republican, by definition, no Senator is either DINO or RINO.

    But, as a state of mind...

  3. With Dem control, none of those embarrassing votes identified by Sirota would have happened because the Dem leadership would have kept the bills off the floor - supposedly. I don't believe it.

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