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DISPUTATIONS: What If Obama Didn't Need 60 Votes?

Richard Yeselson is a research coordinator for the labor federation, Change to Win. The opinions he expresses are his own.

Bill Galston thinks Democrats are in trouble because there's a non-trivial percentage of Americans who, because they are economically illiterate, wish to see rapid reductions of debt and deficits. He suggests that the Obama administration should seek to oblige them. That would be deeply problematic, as it would likely make the economic situation even worse--an outcome, no doubt, that would further enrage these same Americans, along with many, many more.

Let me suggest a thought experiment. Why can't Galston and others (like David Brooks) who have advanced this "Obama has gone too far left" line try, instead, to imagine a nation which could pass legislation with a simple majority vote in both houses of its legislature? In other words, one that is not held captive to an anachronistic, extra-constitutional supermajority requirement that is now being imposed by a minority party which refuses to engage on the big issues. Suddenly, Obama's stimulus is larger and more thoughtfully targeted, his proposed financial regulations have real bite and a coherent rationale behind them, and his health care bill covers more people with better subsidies. Suddenly, Obama is able to augment that original stimulus, if necessary, as he sees fit, rather than desperately hoping that further unemployment benefits will be sufficient. Suddenly, because of a rational, democratic procedure, Obama is paradoxically a president with a record of substantive achievement regarding the crucial public policy issues of the moment. And the misplaced anxieties of those Americans with immediate concerns about the budget don’t seem as relevant.

We are living through the Californiafication of America--a country in which the combination of a determined minority and a procedural supermajority legislative requirement makes it impossible to rationally address public policy challenges. And thus the Democratic president and his allies in Congress are evaluated on the basis of extreme compromise measures--supplicating to dispassionate Wise Men like Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman, buying Olympia Snowe a vacation home, working bills through 76 committees and countless "procedural" votes--rather than the substantive, policy achievements of bills that would merely require a simple majority to pass.

It is sheer good fortune that the Democrats had 59/60 Senate seats this cycle and thus were able to pass any stimulus at all, albeit the inadequate one they did. Think about it: With a robust 56 Senate Democratic seats, the stimulus would have failed--and otherwise, Galston/Brooks would be talking not about Obama’s "going too far," but, rather, about a "failed Obama presidency." And they would be wrong. What we would be witnessing--and are still witnessing--is a failed system of democratic governance. It’s something procedural liberals should be deeply concerned about and should remedy as quickly as possible.