In the Midst of Challenges, a Dysfunctional Washington has Americans Looking to 2016

It was that kind of weekend. On Friday, the Democrats in the Senate broke with decades of tradition in order to push through a rule change that would give the President a freer hand in making executive appointments. And then in the hours leading up to Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry announced a provisional deal between the United States and Iran that, depending on who you ask, is either a breakthrough towards resolving the two countries’ long-standing dispute over Iran’s nuclear program or a preamble to total capitulation by a weak American administration in the face of a serious international threat.

All of this on top of the recent announcement that the US might be in Afghanistan for a lot longer than many imagined – even as administration officials contend that the terms of an upcoming deal with that country should be taken with a grain of salt. In the meantime, Afghan President Karzai is busy telling the Loya Jirga – an Afghan take on a ratifying convention – that he doesn’t trust the US and that the US doesn’t trust him. Who would have thought? Truth and wisdom from the lips of Hamid Karzai.

While we’re at it, did you hear that there’s a company in Texas that has figured out how to make a working handgun with a 3D printer? They call it the ‘Liberator’ and you can pretty easily get the instructions online. As long as such homemade guns include enough metal to register on a metal detector, their production is typically legal. That restriction is thanks to a law passed in 1988 (Reagan) and renewed most recently in 2003 (Bush). It was targeted at mass-manufacturers, who are relatively easy to police – no clue on how you could even begin to enforce such a rule against people tinkering away at home. Not to worry, the law expires next month and the Congress is unlikely to take it up.

The ‘Liberator’ takes its name from FP-45 Liberator, produced during WWII and distributed behind enemy lines by the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA. The FP-45 was capable of firing a single shot, with little accuracy outside of close range. The idea was that resistance forces could use them to ambush enemy soldiers.

The ‘Liberator’ takes its name from FP-45 Liberator, produced during WWII and distributed behind enemy lines by the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA. The FP-45 was capable of firing a single shot, with little accuracy outside of close range. The idea was that resistance forces could use them to ambush enemy soldiers.

In fact, statistically, this Congress is unlikely to take anything up. When measured by the number of bills passed, this Congress – specifically, the House – is the least productive in recorded history. The Do-Nothing Congress that Truman ran against in 1949 passed 1,749 bills in the two years leading up to that election; in their last term, the Congress passed 561 bills. More tellingly, they only adopted 8% of the bills that were introduced, but took more votes than all but four other sessions. In other words, there was a lot of time spent voting on measures that didn’t go anywhere. (But hey, at least they’ve voted 46 times to repeal Obamacare.)

Comprehensive tax reform? Nope. Immigration reform? Not quite. How about a Social Security fix? Don’t hold your breadth.

And the Senate has not been better. Its rediscovered love of the filibuster – an arcane parliamentary procedure that forces a supermajority of 60 votes for routine Senate business – is what largely led Harry Reid to use the nuclear option. What’s the ‘nuclear option’? It’s a process by which a majority of the chamber changes the rules by having most of the votes. Now, if you want something to get out of the Senate – as long as it isn’t a piece of legislation or a Supreme Court nomination – all you need is the approval of most of the chamber. I know – majority rule is really radical stuff.

The argument against the rule change seems to be that requiring a supermajority produces greater consensus because the majority has to take into account the view of the minority. Fair enough, but the downside is that when you can’t find that consensus, then nothing gets done. A 51-vote approval has less legitimacy than a 60-vote approval, but it’s better than a 41-vote veto.

A ‘cloture’ vote is a vote to close debate and proceed on the bill: the blue line indicates instances when a Senator appealed for cloture, the red line indicates instances when a cloture vote was actually held, and finally, the green line indicates those times when the cloture vote was successful in ending debate.

A ‘cloture’ vote is a vote to close debate and proceed on the bill: the blue line indicates instances when a Senator appealed for cloture, the red line indicates instances when a cloture vote was actually held, and finally, the green line indicates those times when the cloture vote was successful in ending debate.

That’s the argument in principle. But you know what it doesn’t explain? It doesn’t explain why the GOP has used the filibuster in the Senate to stall nominees that later gained unanimous approval. That doesn’t seem nearly as principled as we’re led to believe.

But hey, if the GOP hates majority rule so much, they’re more than welcome to reintroduce the filibuster when they take back control of the Senate. I mean, if their complaint is really about first principles and not about political power, then they should be happy to do that. If they do, I’ll eat my hat. If not, maybe they should just accept that losing elections has consequences.

* * *

The theatre of the absurd that Washington has turned into feeds back into another dispiriting trend: the apparently unstoppable forward creep of the election cycle. In case you missed it, retired Congressman Barney Frank recently made rumbles by saying some really nice things about an Elizabeth Warren run for the Presidency. Never mind that Warren is a first-term Senator. Of course, that didn’t stop Barack Obama from running (and winning). The GOP hated that, but the current shortlist on the Republican side has a few first-termers of its own: Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul. There’s also New Jersey Governor Chris Christie – who recently won reelection and proceeded to essentially hold a rally to celebrate the prospects of a Presidential run.

In it’s battle for relevancy, TIME magazine has apparently resorted to fat jokes. Even so, the point is well taken: Chris Christie will be hard to ignore. For a change, that sort of presence might serve the GOP well.

In its battle for relevancy, TIME magazine has apparently resorted to fat jokes. Even so, the point is well taken: Chris Christie will be hard to ignore. For a change, that sort of presence might serve the GOP well.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the three-year Presidential campaign. So, here’s my silver lining take on the otherwise dispiriting prospect of Wolf Blitzer covering Iowa starting next week: at least Americans still care. With Obama’s approval rating underwater, unemployment at 7.3%, and Congress unable to garner support outside of a loyal base of family members and aides, you might expect people to tune out or take to the streets. May it forever be a testament to the vigor of our system that while Washington showed itself farcically unable to move past parliamentary gimmicks and partisan bickering to deal with our fiscal house or the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, Americans responded by focusing on their next opportunity to go to the ballot box. But may it long be to our shame if come next Election Day, we send this sorry lot back to Washington.

Enjoy Thanksgiving – The Fog of Policy will see you again next Tuesday.

 Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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