More from the "why bipartisanship can't work" guy

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Yesterday I quoted someone who has worked in and observed national politics for many years, about why this era's partisan impasse really is different from what we've known in other eras -- and worse. In short, his point was that today's GOP minority was acting like a parliamentary opposition -- voting absolutely as a bloc, under the threat of party discipline -- in our non-parliamentary system, which made it very hard to get anything done.

He is back with another installment, after surveying the range of internet response to his views:

"I'm surprised at the number of people who say, in effect, 'But lots of bills have passed with Republican votes this year.'

"That's the reason to keep including (as your blog post did) the word "major" in front of "legislation."  In a parliamentary system, the party does not make EVERY vote into one of required lock-step voting - only major votes.  Hence the notion of the "three line whip" notice in the House of Commons - defy that, and you're dead.  But absent the three lines drawn on the whip notice, an MP can vote the way he or she prefers.  Or at least that was the way it used to work.  Probably it is all done by Blackberry messages now.

"What the GOP has got going is a three-line whip notice on major legislation.  The Recovery Act passed the House without a single GOP vote - not even one!  That could not happen without party discipline coming from the party, not spontaneously from each House member of the party.  It is true that there are lots of other bills that Republicans can vote for if they wish.  True, but irrelevant.  If any of the bills really matters to Obama in a big way, the contemporary GOP version of the three-line whip notice comes into play. 

"(And how EXACTLY does each GOP member get the word that a particular vote really matters for this purpose?  Find the answer to that, and you will have the perfect comeback to those who try to blame intransigence of the Dems for the lack of GOP votes.  Someone somewhere is giving orders to GOP members, whether by verbal means, written or oral, or secret handshakes or numbers of lanterns hung in the steeples of churches.)

"A closely related development fascinates and infuriates me, partly re the GOP and partly re the press.  In the Senate, the GOP votes against cloture.  But when the Dems finally manage to get the 60 votes, lots of GOP senators typically vote for the bill on final passage.  "What's up with THAT?" I've asked several times.  In the past, if you opposed a bill getting to a vote on the floor, typically (admittedly not always) you would also oppose it IN the vote on the floor.  That was the only reason to oppose it getting to the floor - because you opposed it!  The answer, I've been told several times (by Democratic staffers, who don't seem at all surprised or perturbed), is that a lot of Republicans don't want to be on record as voting against a bill they believe the public or their constituents favor.  Huh?  Trying to kill it without a vote is somehow safe politically, but voting against it on final passage is not?  Now that, I submit, is an anomaly the blame for which we can lay at the feet of the much-diminished news media, and the shortcomings of the Senate Democrats."

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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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