Not a Filibuster Problem, a Nullification Problem

A shift from race-animus to poverty-animus. Or maybe they overlap.

I mentioned last night, just before a surreal immersion in Sharknado, some of the reasons to be concerned about a governance system many of whose members are uninterested in or actively hostile to the very idea of governance. For a little more in this vein:

1) 'Are there no prisons? Are there no work houses?' Please see my colleagues Corby Kummer and Derek Thompson on the flat-out scandal and shame of the Republican vote in the House to deep-six the Food Stamp program. This is the kind of thing that is not going to look good in the history books, to say nothing of its effect in the here and now. Back at the dawn of time, in the late 1960s, I was working, as a college student, on an SCLC-organized effort to enroll people in the Food Stamp program in rural Mississippi and Alabama. This was in between George Wallace's first and second stints as governor of Alabama (and just after his wife held the job), and there was obviously a lot of racial-animus politics in criticism of the Food Stamp program. But at that time there were a lot of offsetting forces. Memories of the Great Depression were, for older Americans, close enough (think of the first few seasons of Mad Men); the JFK-era discussion of The Other America was fresh enough; the shared national effort of World War II was relevant enough; overall economic conditions were egalitarian enough; and "there but for the grace of God ..." thinking was plausible enough, that there was surprisingly little of what now seems the poverty-animus (or money-reverence) politics like that of the Food Stamp bill. If the term hadn't been destroyed by misuse, we could call this "class war." It's just ugly.

2) Choosing our leaders. Please see my colleague David Graham on what has gone wrong with our election system. 


3) Back to nullification. A reader says that I've missed the point of the latest Congressional standoff:

I actually think "filibuster disaster" is the wrong way of thinking of it.  We don't have a filibuster problem.  We have a nullification problem.  Abuse of the filibuster is just one aspect of it, and one of several tactics.Mass filibuster of presidential nominees to head organizations like the CFPB, NLRB, etc., isn't just an abuse of a tactic.  It's a nullification of federal law.  What's really breathtaking about it isn't the number of filibusters, but the fact that they've dropped all pretense of objecting to the nominees themselves: they say explicitly that they are blocking these nominees because they don't like the laws they would enforce.  

They don't think the CFPB or the NLRB should exist.  They don't have the votes (which is to say, the democratic legitimacy) to make their existence no longer the law of the land, so they nullify those laws by other means.

They do the same thing in the House by simply refusing to fund what they don't like.  They can't get the laws off the books, so they nullify them by other means.  It's a mass deployment of Andrew Jackson's famous reaction to the Supreme Court: some previous congress passed this law, now let them fund it.

GOP-controlled state governments, of course, are nullifying things left and right, or trying to. That's what nullification has historically been: nullification of federal law by the states.  What's new here is that, in essence, the federal government is nullifying itself.  You can even be more specific than that: it's the Congress nullifying itself.

It's bizarre and, to be honest, terrifying... 

For more on modern nullification, see this and this from yesterday's Wonkblog, this from Greg Sargent, and these items (first, second, third) from the past year. Or this Ur-statement from John C. Calhoun.

4) While we're at it. Please check out this convincing Salon report on why the IRS "scandal" shows more about bad habits of the press than those of government.

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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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