How moderation got taken off the map
|Monday, 1. March 2010 5 comment(s)||
The leader article in the past week’s Economist magazine asks “What’s gone wrong in Washington?” This is a fair question: Barack Obama, elected less than two years ago with, by US standards, a good majority and with his party also having a majority in both the Senate and House of Representatives has been unable to pass health care reform – his domestic policy priority. When the electorate in 2008 clearly voted for Democrats over Republicans, why is it the Democrats can not pass their flagship policy?
In part this is because of the odd procedures of the US Senate where the filibuster rule, that allows the minority to ‘talk out’ legislation stopping it from passing, has in recent decades made super-majorities necessary. 60 out of 100 senators need to vote in favour of (proposed) legislation in order to avoid the filibuster threat. With Republican Scott Brown recently having taken the seat previously held by Democrat Ted Kennedy, the Democrats lost their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Before it was desirable to have some Republicans vote with them to show bipartisan support for legislation, now it is vital – but there is no bipartisan support. The House shows the same lack of willingness to find bipartisan solutions; Republican representatives who have co-sponsored legislation with Democrat colleagues have subsequently voted against their own initiatives, aware that if they vote with Democrats, this would be used against them by primary challenges when they stand to be reselected as their party’s candidate in their district. This is the dilemma facing moderate senators as well who do not want to be outflanked on their right in their own states.
What accounts for this polarization in Congress? Whilst the various states of the US have become increasingly polarised between Red and Blue, this isn’t the whole story. The issue of “re-districting” or gerrymandering also plays a central role. In many states, what constitutes an electoral district is not decided by a judge or some independent expert panel using census data, rather it is a political deal stitched up between the parties. This leads to ridiculously shaped electoral districts that have been mapped purely to encompass voters who favour one party over the other. This creates large numbers of very uncompetitive districts where only the representative of one party will ever win. Hence the political fight takes place within the parties over who gets to stand, and not between the parties. Within the parties, activists hold sway - be they special interest groups or simply just the most politicized and committed individuals, meaning the Democrats become ever more ‘liberal’ as Americans would say (i.e. left-leaning) and the Republicans pick ever more conservative candidates for their safe seats.
The result of this process seems to be legislative gridlock
and ever more disillusionment on the part of the electorate. Increasingly it looks as if the only possible way to get healthcare reform through the Congress would be for the Democrats to use the Reconciliation process in the Senate - a rarely used procedure that allows the passing of a bill with a simple majority. This procedure was used by the Bush administration to pass its early tax cuts, but using it destroys any claim to a bipartisan approach that Obama has struggled to find. Expect more partisanship and brutal politics as a result.
Texts reflect the opinions of the individual authors