Maine’s “moderate” Republican senator Olympia Snowe has decided to retire because of “the world’s greatest deliberative body’s” “dysfunction” and “political polarization.” She explains herself in today’s Washington Post:
…Simply put, the Senate is not living up to what the Founding Fathers envisioned.
During the Federal Convention of 1787, James Madison wrote in his Notes of Debates that “the use of the Senate is to consist in its proceedings with more coolness, with more system, and with more wisdom, than the popular branch.” Indeed, the Founding Fathers intended the Senate to serve as an institutional check that ensures all voices are heard and considered, because while our constitutional democracy is premised on majority rule, it is also grounded in a commitment to minority rights.
Yet more than 200 years later, the greatest deliberative body in human history is not living up to its billing. The Senate of today routinely jettisons regular order, as evidenced by the body’s failure to pass a budget for more than 1,000 days; serially legislates by political brinkmanship, as demonstrated by the debt-ceiling debacle of August that should have been addressed the previous January; and habitually eschews full debate and an open amendment process in favor of competing, up-or-down, take-it-or-leave-it proposals. We witnessed this again in December with votes on two separate proposals for a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.
As Ronald Brownstein recently observed in National Journal, Congress is becoming more like a parliamentary system — where everyone simply votes with their party and those in charge employ every possible tactic to block the other side. But that is not what America is all about, and it’s not what the Founders intended. In fact, the Senate’s requirement of a supermajority to pass significant legislation encourages its members to work in a bipartisan fashion.
One difficulty in making the Senate work the way it was intended is that America’s electorate is increasingly divided into red and blue states, with lawmakers representing just one color or the other. Before the 1994 election, 34 senators came from states that voted for a presidential nominee of the opposing party. That number has dropped to just 25 senators in 2012. The result is that there is no practical incentive for 75 percent of the senators to work across party lines.
Actually, the system is working exactly as it was intended to work. The framers made it hard to “get things done” without a consensus on what is to be done. In the 90’s there was a consensus among the voters that welfare as it existed then needed to be changed radically so that the taxpayers were not subsidizing illegitimate births, sloth, and crime. This consensus resulted in a welfare reform law that passed both houses of Congress and was signed by a president whose most fervent supporters were opposed to it. It passed because the overwhelming majority of voters supported it, in other words, a consensus.
The big issue today is whether the federal government in Washington is to be responsible for all that goes on in the country or whether most of “what gets done” is better left to the states, localities and individuals.
This is a really big deal, as Joe Biden might say. As of yet, there is no consensus, and as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, fewer and fewer people understand that the federal government is constitutionally responsible for only a few specific, enumerated tasks and is prohibited from passing laws that infringe on the inalienable rights listed in the Bill of Rights.
The states, localities and people, however, can do whatever they want. Thus if Massachusetts wants to have socialized medicine with a mandate, they are free to do so. That’s the key difference between Romneycare and Obamacare. And it’s a big difference. Obamacare passed the Senate because the Democrats were willing to use a parliamentary maneuver traditionally used only for uncontroversial legislation, not legislation that alters 16% of the economy and is unpopular with a majority of the voters.
But Senator Snowe, a longtime Washington fixture, thinks Senators ought to vote against the wishes of most of the voters in their states to achieve “the common good” (whatever that means):
…The great challenge is to create a system that gives our elected officials reasons to look past their differences and find common ground if their initial party positions fail to garner sufficient support. In a politically diverse nation, only by finding that common ground can we achieve results for the common good. That is not happening today and, frankly, I do not see it happening in the near future.
For change to occur, our leaders must understand that there is not only strength in compromise, courage in conciliation and honor in consensus-building — but also a political reward for following these tenets. That reward will be real only if the people demonstrate their desire for politicians to come together after the planks in their respective party platforms do not prevail.
The above is a steaming load of, what Obama might call in a different context, “you- know-what.” You can only compromise when there is a consensus and the differences of opinon are small. If politicians think their consitutuents are wrong in their beliefs, then it is up to them to convince those misguided people of their errors. It’s easy for Olympia Snowe to criticize her Republican colleagues who represent conservative voters when the majority of her constituents typically vote for Democrats.
The 2012 election will either reveal a national consensus on entitlement and the size and power of the federal government or it will produce a divided national government and a continuation of “gridlock.”
And that is exactly what the Constitution’s framers wanted.