If You'd Like a Good, Clean Explanation of the Filibuster Disaster ...

A short but not necessarily cheering exposition of our governing problems

... then I recommend this piece today in the WaPo by political scientist Jonathan Bernstein. Both parties have a role in the dysfunction/fecklessness swamp that is the modern Senate, Bernstein says. But their roles are not symmetrical -- or "equivalent," we might say: 

Mitch McConnell's Republican minority is doing damage by abusing filibuster threats in a way never seen before in American history, Bernstein argues. And the Democrats are doing damage by not resisting strongly enough. To work in a topical reference, this is sort of like George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin both "sharing" the blame for their fight. As Bernstein says:

McConnell, ever since January 2009, has treated filibusters as routine and universal. That's brand new. There have been filibusters of executive branch nominees before, but only in rare cases. Almost all the time, under all previous presidents, the Senate had a simple majority hurdle, not a 60 vote hurdle, for executive branch appointments. Nominees didn't have to get cloture; they only needed to get a simple majority.

Which is how it should be. There are reasonable justifications, agree with them or not, for supermajority requirements on at least some legislation and on at least some lifetime-appointment judges. There are no reasonable justifications for needing 60 for executive branch positions. Really, I'm not aware of any good arguments for needing 60 on any exec branch nominations, let alone having it as the standard for all of those selections. 


Much more detail in his post. To make this part of a Bigger Picture (before I switch over to watching Sharknado, with the excuse that the world's leading shark photographer is a sort-of cousin, Chris Fallows of South Africa), consider this. People are resilient, and the American system in particular has enormous bounce-back ability. But:
  • Climate changes mount up faster than any evident ability to deal with or even acknowledge them;
  • American society is more polarized, stratified, and unequal, economically and socially, than it has been in more than a century, and all visible forces promise to make this worse; and
  • At just this time the world's leading power -- that's us -- struggles with governance while one of its major parties acts as if governance doesn't really matter. Cf. the default-on-the-debt showdown of 2011, the sequester leech-therapy of 2012-13, now the paralysis on immigration even when it is in the Republicans' "rational" self-interest to approve it. This nihilist group is a minority, but a large enough one to block action by everyone else. Disliking "big government" is one thing, or having a debate about the proper role of the state. Pretending that a big, complicated country doesn't need anyone making decisions is something else, and would have been a surprise to the Founders and to all the rest of the world.  

Yes, these are more downer-than-usual topics late at night, but the real point is that stasis on the last item makes it very difficult to deal with the other two challenges, or lesser threats. We've had periods of bad government before, and we're still here. But to have one of our major parties acting as if the Senate, the executive branch, the courts -- who needs 'em! ... It actually can be dangerous.

Brighter themes anon.

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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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