Tuesday, January 25, 2011

And Now, a Frozen Senate

One of the challenges of living near the epicenter of American politics is that I have developed a certain tone deafness to the nuances of political debate in the hallowed halls of our Nation's Federal City. Part of this is caused, no doubt, by my own tin ear to all things Republican. It hasn't always been that way, only since Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980.

NPR announced this morning that the Senate is "frozen." Senator Reid used his authority as Senate Majority Leader to keep the Senate in session such that every day is the Senate's first legislative day all over again. Bill Murray is starring in the movie. The Democrats are keeping the option open to change the Senate debate rules with a simple majority. Senator McConnell opined that the Republicans are happy with the rules as they stand. Meanwhile, Senator Tom Udall declaimed that "... [the American People] are fed up with us." I'm pretty sure that his sentiment is shared by most Americans across the political spectrum, and goes far beyond the issue of the filibuster and the Senate Rules. Amen.

Democrats flirt with the rule changes, but using a simple majority to change the rules on the "first" legislative day of the session could lead to worse consequences. The Republicans may well control the Senate in 2013, and what happens in 2011 could be repeated two years from now. Udall is correct, much of the American public is fed up with the way the Senate operates. The public has a way to change that. It can oust incumbent legislators who obstruct the legislative process. Scorched earth procedural tactics aren't the answer. Talking with the Republicans, and calling McConnell (and others) on their egregious behavior is a better way.

The Tea Party poses a real threat to Republicans. It has tilted the party sharply right (if that is possible!), and has constrained the policy space in which the Republican leadership can move. The Tea Party legislators propose no taxes and wounding spending cuts. While the movement claims to be speaking for the American public, the 2010 campaign was not a public debate about the the deficit, taxes, and spending, rather it was about eviscerating opponents. The public is still in the dark.

Here's the challenge. The tax and budget hearing rooms on Capitol Hill are inhabited by three 800-pound gorillas: the need to raise taxes, the need to cut entitlements, and the need to rationalize defense spending. Unless those three issues are addressed, the politicians are only bloviating, and they aren't serious at all about budget reform. If the Republicans can't compromise on taxes and defense spending, and the Democrats can't compromise on entitlement cuts and cuts to other "discretionary" spending, then it's all just talk. The test of this Congress will be whether it can craft meaningful compromises. The country needs presidential and congressional leadership on these issues. The country needs a factual, meaningful debate.

During this Senate's Longest Day, let's hope our leaders find wisdom....