Friday, October 29, 2010


Our Undemocratic System of Government

A few hours ago I heard a discussion on the local Pacifica station between the host of the program and a writer.  The writer opined that Obama had lost or turned away the support of his most loyal followers.  Instead of trying to govern in a new mode, he chose to run a traditional administration.  Rather than choose new advisors, he depended heavily on advisors from the Clinton administration.  His followers, or at least some of them, have been disappointed in the way that the health care reform bill was passed.  Many of them, and I include myself one, wanted to see a reform that would take the insurance companies out of the medical care system.  Instead, Obama turned his back on the "public option" and gave the insurance companies another 3 years before the most important reatures of the law take effect.

I think that Obama's followers have a different view of "change" in Washington from that of Obama.  I believe that Obama wanted to try to make the constitutional system work by trying to work out compromises with his opponents.  He knows that our system is not designed to reach decisions by mere majority rule.  Important decisions require consensus, or an overwhelming majority.  The Senate is, in fact, deliberately structured to thwart majority rule, not merely by the filibuster but by the system of representation.  Each State, regardless of population or economic power is entitled to just two Senators.  Populous and rich California has two.  Little Rhode Island has two.  Alaska has two.  It is possible to achieve a fifty percent margin in the Senate in favor of a proposition in which the fifty percent of Senators represent only about ten percent of the total population.

As a consequence, it has always been necessary, since the first days of the American republic, to put together voting majorities by special deals.  Senators and Representatives from certain States or districts have to achieve some benefit for their constituents in exchange for a favorable vote.  This is a consequence of our constitutional system and Obama wisely decided not to try to buck it.  He was looking for a change back to the days of President Lyndon Johnson, when President Johnson and Senator Dirksen, the minority leader (and also a Senator from Illinois) would make deals to get some Republican votes for Johnson's favored program in exchange for some judicial appointments for the Senators to make.  There was comity in Congress in those days.  Democrats and Republicans could talk to each other, make deals, collaborate on things they agreed on, and so on.  That was the kind of change Obama was hoping to achieve.

The spirit of comity and compromise has been poisoned in Congress.  I won't try to assess blame or even to estimate when the poison started.  It was certainly in evidence after the election of 1994 when Gingrich became the Speaker and the Republicans were enthusiastically trying to implement their "contract with America."  It's in evidence today with Pelosi as Speaker, Boehner as the minority leader in the House, and McConnell as the minority leader in the Senate.

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