Personally, I think pork is an important part of the legislative process. When combined with transparency, pork gives Congressional leaders something of value to offer a lawmaker who doesn’t want to support a particular bill. During the lead-up to and aftermath of the vote on the Affordable Care Act, the Cornhusker Kickback showed both sides of the coin. Majority Leader Harry Reid needed Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska’s vote, but Sen. Nelson had no electoral incentive to support ObamaCare. So, inducements were provided. Concessions were made. And Nebraska had the federal government agree to pick up (in perpetuity) 100% of the tab for the Medicaid expansion in the bill. That sweet deal, along with painful concessions on the abortion language, was enough to win Nelson’s vote and pass the bill.
Yet, as soon as the details of the deal were revealed, it became a scandal. Rather than boasting that he had won an awesome concession for his home state, Sen. Nelson denied he had asked for the concession in the first place. Then the whole deal was eliminated in the budget reconciliation part of the health care reforms. The lesson isn’t that pork or special treatment are bad, but that you have to be a good judge of the politics. Ultimately, the people were more offended that Nebraska was treated differently than most of the other states than they were impressed with Nelson’s hardball negotiating tactics. In some other situation, saving an Air Force base for example, the people might actually reward Nelson for his savvy.
Pork and other special treatment can create suboptimal allocations of resources, and its unfair almost by definition. But a legislature needs ways to grease the skids so that they can actually get things done. As long as things are transparent, people can fairly judge why their representative has voted the way that they have, and they can punish or reward them accordingly.
This is just one more example of how John McCain is wrong about everything.
Which brings me to Mitch McConnell and the Republicans’ refusal to entertain any jobs proposals from the president. Historically, presidents have been able to rely on a couple of things to win sufficient support from the opposition to pass bills that address the urgent needs of the country. For most of the postwar period, there was enough ideological overlap and lack of party unity that most issues didn’t neatly line up along party lines. That’s no longer the case. The GOP is united in opposition for opposition’s sake. The New York Times reported on this in March 2010.
On the major issues — not just health care, but financial regulation and the economic stimulus package, among others — Mr. McConnell has held Republican defections to somewhere between minimal and nonexistent, allowing him to slow the Democratic agenda if not defeat aspects of it. He has helped energize the Republican base, expose divisions among Democrats and turn the health care fight into a test of the Democrats’ ability to govern.
“It was absolutely critical that everybody be together because if the proponents of the bill were able to say it was bipartisan, it tended to convey to the public that this is O.K., they must have figured it out,” Mr. McConnell said about the health legislation in an interview, suggesting that even minimal Republican support could sway the public. “It’s either bipartisan or it isn’t.”
Mr. McConnell said the unity was essential in dealing with Democrats on “things like the budget, national security and then ultimately, obviously, health care.”
In the past, the way to deal with such obstruction would have been to attack the most vulnerable members of the opposition. However, President Obama has been operating under some daunting circumstances in that regard. Of the twelve incumbent Republican senators who sought reelection in 2010, only one (Chuck Grassley of Iowa) represented a state that Obama won during the 2008 elections. Of the remaining eleven, two (Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Bob Bennett of Utah) were challenged and defeated in the primaries by Tea Party candidates. Murkowski managed to win reelection as an independent, while Bennett’s career was over. The problem, for Obama, was that Republican senators had much more to fear from cooperating with him than by opposing him. He did, however, have success in flipping Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania to the Democratic Party, where he supplied vital support in the 111th Congress.
Things are no better this year. There are only eight incumbent Republican senators seeking reelection, compared to 17 Democratic incumbents. Of those eight, four come from states that Obama carried in 2008 (Richard Lugar of Indiana, Dean Heller of Nevada, Olympia Snowe of Maine, and Scott Brown of Massachusetts). The president has been able to get some support from Lugar, Snowe, and Brown on various issues. Sen. Heller is new to the Senate, but has so far shown no sign of fearing the president more than the rabid base of his party. Sens. Lugar and Snowe will almost definitely have difficult primary challenges from their right, which places them in a difficult spot. Right now, only Scott Brown seems to be in the classic position of feeling the need to work with a president of the opposite party or risk losing his seat.
It’s this lack of leverage that has plagued the White House for the last two and a half years. And it’s made even worse by another factor. The obvious solution to a situation like this is to go to the people and convince them of the correctness of your policies and plans. Obama has done that. The people agree with him on pretty much everything he is saying about jobs, spending, and taxes. The problem is that the Republicans don’t care. In the House, at least, many of these Republicans are vulnerable next fall. They are going to pay a price for screwing up our credit rating and refusing to compromise on anything. But they don’t care. That’s the final piece of the problem. The House Republicans have no sense of self-preservation. Their leaders will take them right over a cliff, and they’ll go along like lemmings.
It was possible to overcome some of this when the Democrats had 59 (and, briefly, 60) senators. With 53 senators, nothing can be done. That the Republicans now own the House is almost irrelevant, although it means we can’t even have votes for our priorities.
This is why Washington is broken. It is concerted obstruction, a lack of accountability in the undemocratic Senate, and a lack of any sense of self-preservation among House Republicans. The result is that Republicans don’t care what the public thinks or wants.
And this is why. Career Republican congressional staffer Mike Lofgren explains:
“A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption,” he wrote. “Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.”
A deeply cynical tactic, to be sure, but a psychologically insightful one that plays on the weaknesses both of the voting public and the news media. There are tens of millions of low-information voters who hardly know which party controls which branch of government, let alone which party is pursuing a particular legislative tactic. These voters’ confusion over who did what allows them to form the conclusion that “they are all crooks,” and that “government is no good,” further leading them to think, “a plague on both your houses” and “the parties are like two kids in a school yard.” This ill-informed public cynicism, in its turn, further intensifies the long-term decline in public trust in government that has been taking place since the early 1960s – a distrust that has been stoked by Republican rhetoric at every turn (“Government is the problem,” declared Ronald Reagan in 1980).
One final note. When FDR passed Social Security his party controlled 75 Senate seats out of a total of 96. When LBJ passed Medicare, his party controlled 68 out of 100 seats. Asking Obama to deliver the same kind of major progressive reforms when his party doesn’t have a supermajority is not realistic. He has 53 votes and a determined and implacable opposition. Just sayin’.