Saturday, March 19, 2016

Might it be possible to restore majority rule in Congress?

The last few days I've been wondering whether our very odd national politics that has been coming to the fore in this Presidential campaign might have interesting derivative consequences that people seem not yet to be considering.  Or to put it more concretely, does the Trump candidacy and the now Block Trump reaction, a situation that many deem as 'impossible' such as this piece yesterday by David Brooks, ultimately create certain possibilities that don't currently exist? 

Armed with that thought I began to look for what possibilities might emerge.  I didn't get to the majority rule idea straight away.  I first considered the Establishment Republicans and their wealthy benefactors regarding their attitudes about the rank and file of the party.  If the Trump supporters themselves speak of betrayal, which they certainly seem to be doing, and if they have legitimate reasons for holding those beliefs, what is the source of that?  As Paul Krugman wrote yesterday, many of the Republican leaders and benefactors champion Ayn Rand and therefore infer that if somebody is doing poorly income-wise that person must lack the enterprising spirit and doesn't put in sufficient effort in the workplace.   The leadership, in effect, has contempt for members of their own party.  Or, since I have a fondness for the pithy pun, you might surmise the leadership view by:

The rank and file are
Rank and vile.

One might hope that the leadership would question their own core beliefs now, seeing how the Trump candidacy seems an indirect consequence.  Perhaps that will eventually happen in the goodness of time.  But there is no obvious champion to replace Ayn Rand and, even if there were, the experience about learners witnessing an experiment that cuts against their core beliefs suggests that it is very difficult for them to readily change their beliefs.  A much more likely behavior is to reject the experimental evidence.  And here I'm talking about stuff having nothing to do with national politics.  As I wrote about in a post called Back to Basics, now almost 10 years ago:

The core questions for each of us are: how do I come to know what I know and how do I come to believe what I believe? Ken Bain of NYU, who was the speaker at our annual Active Learning Retreat, tells the story of students studying Freshmen Physics, but armed with an Aristotelian conception of space and motion, rather than a Newtonian one, who when confronted with experimental evidence produced by their instructors that would seemingly refute the Aristotelian view and force them to adopt a different mental model, instead rejected the evidence as exceptional and therefore not relevant. This story is indicative of the core issue.  

So, being aware of this issue in getting minds to embrace new beliefs and discarding old ones, I wondered what possibilities might realistically open up and which others will remain wishful thinking only.  I puzzled over that for a while.  A trigger for me in that thinking was reading Timothy Egan's piece, Crackpot Party Crackup.   It is a well argued piece.  Nonetheless, I was troubled by the conclusion he offered up:

The choice for honorable Republicans — should I stay or should I go? — is obvious, though not easy. Leave this summer, or forever live with the consequences.

Egan's piece is written in a way to preclude a third possibility - work hard from within to change things so that the party comes back from going over the deep end.  After all, the Republicans are the party of Lincoln and Lincoln's singular achievement was to preserve the Union.  How does leaving the party honor the memory of Lincoln?  Further, if Lincoln's spirit could somehow be maintained by forming a new Party, how would it work if the masses stayed where they are but the money moved to this new entity?  Surely that would blow things up rather than give genesis to a neo-Lincoln movement.

Then I started to wonder, quite apart from the challenge the Trump candidacy provides, whether many in Congress from both parties who do consider themselves pragmatic, not true believers, are burning out doing their jobs and would therefore want to leave to resolve their own burnout, with Egan's argument offering cover for that.  They would then leave Congressional politics altogether.  If the ship is sinking, a pragmatic person looks for a lifeboat.

On this score I recalled reading an Op-Ed by Evan Bayh written after he announced he'd be leaving the Senate.  What is striking about this piece, apart from his emotional embrace of the earlier time when his father, Birch Bayh, held that office, is that the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House then, and it was written almost immediately after the Citizens United decision, so the consequences of that decision had not yet played out.  The burnout that Bayh displays in this piece is evident nonetheless.  That burnout is largely attributable to a lack of civility and collegiality in the Senate.  One might surmise that the climate has only gotten worse since.  The current era has been characterized as the politics of hostage taking.  My thought is that those who fit Egan's description as honorable Republicans in Congress might proceed posthaste to walk back from the politics of hostage taking and attempt to reestablish the politics of collegiality.

There would be political risks in doing so, no doubt.  As Michael Tomasky argues, this sort of behavior would expose the Republican politician to an attack from his right flank.  Heretofore, those threats from the right flank have enforced Party unity.  This is where the Trump candidacy comes in.  There are huge risks for an honorable member of Congress, to proceed as they have been doing, setting themselves up to do Trump's bidding in the event he becomes President.  Instead, they'd want to push back.  Embracing collegiality would be a way of doing so.

Further, there is the clear evidence in the unpopularity of Congress that the gridlock, which the politics of hostage taking produces, has been damaging the country in a way that is evident to these honorable Republicans.  Moving toward collegiality would then represent an honest effort to make things better.

So far I feel on terra firma in making this argument.  Now the Fantasy Island part begins.  Who will lead the honorable Republicans in Congress in this new direction?   My sense is that honorable behavior (and really I mean reasonable more than honorable for the following reason) is displayed more in private conversations that occur outside public view than in public pronouncements.  (The necessity of private expression of the pragmatic view probably shouldn't be questioned in the current environment, but I wouldn't term this behavior honorable.)   If that is right and since I'm not privy to those private expressions, I really don't know which members of Congress are candidates for moving to a more collegial approach and who among this group would be the likely leaders.  So I'm going to do something here that I know is flawed, admit that, and then proceed in spite of this limitation.  I'd like to personify this movement to collegiality.  To do so I will rely on the public perception of these members of Congress - really my sense of that.

In my scenario, Speaker Ryan does the statesmanlike thing and abandons the Hastert Rule.  Even though the right flank of his own party dethroned his predecessor, former Speaker Boehner, and surely the right flank would be angered by such a move, it really would represent an action that is in the spirit of Lincoln.  And, with Ryan only recently assuming the role of Speaker, is there really a risk of another revolt from the right that might jeopardize his hold on the position?  Further, if done in a timely fashion, might it not also influence the Senate as to whether they take up President Obama's Supreme Court nominee?

I believe it is Common Knowledge that if the Senate did take up the Merrick Garland nomination then Garland would be confirmed.  Given that, I also believe that a majority of the Senate thinks they should commence in the Advise and Consent process now.   Majority Leader McConnell and Senator Grassley and a few other leaders who have spoken out on the matter, say they want to wait till the next President has assumed office.  They clearly don't want to hand a victory to President Obama.  They want to thwart the President wherever they can.  This is putting partisan interest above national interest.  (Incidentally, I believe that Harry Reid is just as much a pitbull as McConnell, so I don't want to absolve the Democrats of a similar sort of obstruction in the past, with the notable difference that some of the current obstruction to Obama is based on the fact that he is proposing the idea rather than on the idea itself.)   Mark Kirk, who is up for reelection in Illinois and facing a tough race, and Susan Collins of Maine have publicly said that the Senate should start hearings on the Garland nomination.  How many other reasonable Republican Senators think the same thing, but don't say this publicly due to the political risks in doing so?

Further, there is the rather simple political analysis to be done by taking a game theoretic look at the situation.  What would the outcome be if the Senate does not take up the Garland nomination?  It is likely now that the next President will be a Democrat.  The Not Trump vote might be making it likely that the Democrats will take back the Senate as well.  Opinions can vary on that joint event happening, but if there is a reasonable likelihood of that as outcome and if in that instance the next President would nominate someone less moderate than Garland, Republicans would then end up losing.  So, how does it make sense to block the Garland nomination now?  Add to this the possibility that holding up on the Advise and Consent process may itself have adverse electoral consequences for the Republicans, McConnell's pronouncement to the contrary notwithstanding.

So in my scenario, Ryan's public announcement of abandoning the Hastert Rule, coupled with some behind-closed-door negotiations with the Majority Leader, has the consequence of McConnell polling the full Senate on whether they should take up the Advise and Consent process, with his agreeing in advance to respect the will of the majority, however that turns out.  This would mark the end of the politics as hostage taking era and the beginning of a new era of collegiality.

Let me close on the humorous front.  The following cartoon was quite popular when I was an assistant professor back in the early 1980s.  I'm invoking it here.  I realize my step two also needs more work.  Sometimes you announce the theorem first, as Fermat famously did, and let the proof come later.

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