Michael Barone: “Dare I suggest,” writes the economist and blogger Tyler Cowen, “that the quality of governance in this country has taken a downward turn of late?” Or as Casey Stengel, while managing the New York Mets on their way to a 40-120 season in 1962, reportedly asked, “Can’t anybody here play this game?”
In successive weeks, both Democrats and Republicans have shown a downward trend in the quality of governance and raised questions about whether anybody in Washington can play this game.
Start with the Democrats and their strikeout last week in the hearings on Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. Their attacks on Gorsuch as a scourge of “the little guy” were, as liberal Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman wrote, “a terrible idea.” Judges are supposed to decide cases on the law, not the net worth of litigants.
Democrats are now lining up to filibuster the nomination, on the spurious grounds that confirmation has always required 60 votes. Actually, Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito were confirmed in 1991 and 2006 with 52 and 58 votes, respectively.
Democrats are still steamed that Senate Republicans blocked Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, last year. But the Constitution doesn’t require the Senate to hold hearings or a vote on nominees.
Joe Biden in 1992 and Charles Schumer in 2007 argued that no nominee should be approved in a presidential election year. That makes sense in an era when Supreme Court decides partisan issues like abortion, gun control and campaign finance. Give the voters a chance to weigh in.
Senate Democrats are now rounding up enough votes to sustain a filibuster. In which case Senate Republicans will almost certainly change the filibuster rule for Supreme Court nominees, as Harry Reid and Senate Democrats did in 2013 for other judges and executive-branch nominees — and as VP nominee Tim Kaine promised to do if Democrats won the presidency and a Senate majority.
Abolishing the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees will weaken Senate Democrats.
Doesn’t anybody know how to play this game?
House Republicans certainly don’t, judging from the debacle of their attempt to fulfill their seven-year promise to repeal and replace Obamacare. There is plenty of blame to go around.
Much goes to Speaker Paul Ryan, who attempted to shove through his bill in three weeks without bothering to get consensus from fellow Republicans. Ryan’s bill was tailored to pass muster under the Senate’s arcane reconciliation rules, something he probably should have left for Senate Republicans to handle.
Ryan’s initial insistence that Republicans accept his bill without changes didn’t work, and neither did White House adviser Steve Bannon’s similar ploy with a later version. If Ryan and Donald Trump had not insisted on a quick vote — Democrats, in contrast, took 14 months to pass Obamacare — they might have had time to accommodate the differences.
Or maybe not. Consider the 30-some members of the House Freedom Caucus, who reportedly found one reason after another not to sign onto a bill that at least moved in the direction of repealing and replacing Obamacare. They seem to be operating from a deep suspicion of their party’s leadership and from a purism that requires them to withhold support from any major legislation if they object to even one provision in it.
The problem is that in a large and varied country, with complex legislation with multiple ramifications, purism sets a standard that seldom, if ever, can be met. The most that legislators can usually accomplish is to shift the course of the giant ocean liner that is the federal government. Only in very rare circumstances can they reverse the course 180 degrees.
Some blame belongs to the president, as well. If Barack Obama seemed diffident about the details of public policy and their effects on people’s lives, on this issue Donald Trump seemed disconnected from them — not a good position from which to practice the art of the deal.
You may have noticed that the quality of governance has been taking a downward turn of late partly because of mistakes made by party leaders — but mostly because of the demands — and anger — of both parties’ wingers.
Left-wing Democrats are demanding all-out war — they call it “resistance” — on Republicans and the Trump administration. Right-wing Republicans are distrustful of party leaders and are coming to realize that what they have in common with Donald Trump is only attitude, not principle.
Anger and mistrust are poor guides for purposeful and rational formulation of public policy. Does anybody know how to play that game?