Monday New York Times column, Paul Krugman triggered quite a reaction after suggesting that Congress neuter the current filibuster rules.
"Nobody should meddle lightly with long-established parliamentary procedure. But our current situation is unprecedented: America is caught between severe problems that must be addressed and a minority party determined to block action on every front. Doing nothing is not an option — not unless you want the nation to sit motionless, with an effectively paralyzed government, waiting for financial, environmental and fiscal crises to strike."
Are we that close to Defcon 1? Given the rawness of political passion these days, I suppose that many on the left may welcome Krugman's(purposely provocative) idea. Especially now, when the Democrats still enjoy commanding majorities in both the Senate and House of Representatives. In the back of their mind is the question whether that advantage will last past the midterm elections next fall. But you have to wonder whether we really are living in a historically unique era, one in which hard choices about the nation's future are always going to be held hostage to narrow-minded minorities threatening to filibuster? (I didn't find his argument persusasive. You'll find good objections from Jazz Shaw as well as from Senate staff veteran Charles Stevenson (as quoted by James Fallows.)
But let's play out an alternative scenario. Close your eyes and imagine that it's February 2013. Open them now: President Sarah Palin, who commands majorities in the House and Senate, wants her legislative point men to pass her legislative agenda and it's an ambitious one. The new president wants to ram through bills that would gut Medicare, privatize Social Security and roll back decades' worth of privacy legislation.
Heaven help us if that is our future but if so, do you think Krugman might want liberals to have an effective filibuster threat to wield when the majority goes too far?
The problem isn't so much the quality of the legislative rules as it is the quality of the Democratic leadership. No offense but let's be honest: Compared with previous Democratic legislators of yore, like Lyndon Johnson, Tip O'Neill and Sam Rayburn, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi come off as lightweights (unlikeable ones, at that.) Instead of jumping ugly at Republicans for being obstructionist - that is the job of the minority, after all - why not ask why current Democratic leadership can't steamroll a non-entity in the House of Representatives like Bart Stupak - Bart Stupak? - or whip Senate "moderates" into line without first bargaining away the most best ideas in the original health care reform package?
Also, keep this in mind: Compared with what's on the docket next, health care insurance legislation was relatively easy. Even opponents agreed that the current insurance system is flawed and needs repair. Still, the Democrats couldn't pick up a single Republican - not even one of the two Mainers.
If past is prologue, the debate over cap-and-trade, financial reform and what to do about the budget - well , talk about the definition of yawning gaps. Closing that divide requires well-crafted proposals with sensible ideas that work. If the Republicans threaten to filibuster, the Democrats can counter with reconciliation. The electorate will go along if the Democrats come up with good policy.
If they can't, no amount of whining about the troglodytes running the GOP is going to matter.