The Unspeakable F-Word, Government-Style

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I have mentioned this theme a time or two in the past. But, seriously, if you can sit still for one more installment, this matters. We're not just talking boiled frogs here.

barneyfrank120423_1_560.jpg1) From Jason Zengerle's consistently fascinating "exit interview" with Barney Frank, in New York magazine, in which Frank looks back on his 30-plus years in Congress and a much longer time than that thinking about politics. I know it's even longer because when I was a college newspaper guy in the late 1960s, Frank was a grad student/teacher who would show up in the newsroom to talk about how politics should work. Here is what he says now when asked about the main thing that is wrong with Congress. (Emphasis added; NY mag photo at right.)

JZ: Are there structural reforms that you think need to take place?
BF: To get rid of the filibuster in the Senate.
JZ: Is that the only one?
BF: That's the only one.

2) From the political scientist Jonathan Bernstein, at The Plum Line column of the Washington Post:

Most Americans, not surprisingly, do not realize that majorities can no longer get their way in the Senate. After all, it wasn't that long ago that most key votes in the Senate were based on simple majority voting. Only since 1993 has constant filibustering been common, and only in 2009 did Republicans create a situation in which virtually everything requires a supermajority....

The decision of the Republican minority to create the 60 vote Senate -- and the willingness of the Democratic majority to go along with it -- remains perhaps the most important single structural fact of Congressional procedure. It has been at least as important as any other factor in shaping Obama's legislative agenda. And news organizations still aren't telling readers and viewers the full truth about what's happening.

It seems tedious or ridiculous to point this out for the 900th time. The problem is that the tactic will be used for the 901st time the next day, and a change of norms (the willingness to filibuster everything) has become a defacto amendment to the Constitution.

To my mind, the drastic recent lurch toward supermajority requirements for everything is deeply destructive, no matter which party is exerting this minority-blocking role. It's destructive for reasons presaged by California's drift into paralysis-by-supermajority, in which a changing assortment of special-interest groups can prevent almost anything from happening. It's this structural change that puts the "dangerous" into all the standard talk about "dangerous polarization" of our politics.

But even if you disagree, you should acknowledge that what has happened these past few years is a change, and a big one, from the previous two centuries of American practice. The fact that I'm vaguely embarrassed to be posting "yet another item" on this theme illustrates a problem: We all crave novelty, and there is nothing novel in pointing out what is happening to our government. But the things that matter are not always brand new sparkling ones, and this is an illustration.

Off the grid the rest of the day, then back to: electric cars, Iran-Israel-US, email hacking, TSA, the space shuttle, a happy story involving Amtrak, and even boiled frogs.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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