Parties Behave as if Congress Operates on a Parliamentary System

Posted December 15, 2009 at 2:14pm

It was striking once again to see House Republicans unite last week and vote against the financial regulation package presented by Chairman Barney Frank’s Financial Services Committee.

[IMGCAP(1)]Of course, a bill to provide substantial new regulation of financial practices, including creation of a new consumer protection agency, was not going to be met with zeal by most conservatives. But the Massachusetts Democrat is no ideological zealot, and his committee is not one known for its partisan rigidity. And there is no way that every Republican, in a secret ballot vote, would have turned thumbs down on a serious effort to deal with the financial meltdown.

Instead, we have further evidence of the breakdown in any bipartisan comity in Congress, in turn reflecting the desire by the minority Republicans to act as if it were a parliamentary party, enforcing discipline and voting en bloc against majority proposals because that is what a minority party does in a parliamentary system.

But the U.S. does not have a parliamentary system, and it is both dysfunctional and in the end tragic to see so many partisans in the system try to force the parliamentary square peg into the American constitutional round hole.

The tragedy is most evident on the health care reform front and was expressed most eloquently by Washington Post columnist Steve Pearlstein in a recent column lauding Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) while panning Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Daniels, he said, “would rather get something done than score political points.— McConnell is operating in the opposite framework.

When the gang of six met in the Senate to try to find bipartisan common ground on health care reform, it was widely reported that McConnell met with two of the three Republicans in the gang, Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Mike Enzi (Wyo.), and told them in no uncertain terms that if they compromised with the Democrats, there would be dire consequences — just the sort of pressure a parliamentary leader would apply.

Grassley and Enzi got the message. They predictably backed away from any gang of six agreement and voted “no— in the Finance Committee, despite their impressive input and multiple amendments offered by the two and accepted by the Finance Committee.

A genuine centrist reform bill could have emerged from the gang of six negotiations. But even absent that, the opening for Republicans to shape seriously the outcome of a health care reform bill was there and was wide. At an early stage, there is no doubt that if a group of six or 10 Republicans had gone to President Barack Obama or Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and said, “We can get you up to 70 votes in the Senate, if you accept these three conditions — meaningful malpractice reform, an independent Medicare best practices panel with teeth to transform the system, and genuinely competitive elements in the health exchanges, including ones focused on health savings accounts, without a public option,— they could have cut a deal.

A similar deal was probably available a few weeks ago, as Senate Democrats struggled to find 60 votes within their own ranks. Indeed, as Pearlstein notes, a genuine effort to shape the bill without resorting to filibusters and other delaying tactics could have done more on deficit cutting, more on changing the tax-free status of health insurance plans to change incentives and more on real competitiveness in the system.

It is not that Harry Reid and his Democrats are eager to be bipartisan; they, too, are drawn to the chimera of parliamentary government, especially with 60 Democratic Conference members making it theoretically achievable. But holding all 60 is a nearly impossible task for something like health care reform, and Obama and Reid would have found the expedited path to a bipartisan supermajority highly appealing.

Perhaps McConnell and his colleagues will achieve their clear goal — a spectacular Democratic flameout on the president’s top domestic priority, leading to a big public backlash at the failure of the party in power to govern. Perhaps the odd positioning of Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) — he was, after all, for an extension of Medicare to those between 55 and 64 before he was against it — will actually give McConnell his victory by leaving the otherwise unified Democrats one vote short.

But if the Democrats’ deal to abandon the Medicare buy-in holds and McConnell cannot keep Reid from finding the path to 60, or if the failure to do so forces a reconciliation package as the last resort, the result will be much poorer legislation than would have resulted if Republicans had used their considerable leverage to change the bill. And it further cements the minority as a “party of no.—

On another note: House Democrats are losing some of their best Members via retirement, with Bart Gordon of Tennessee being the latest to announce his departure. Gordon joins his Tennessee colleague John Tanner, Kansas’ Dennis Moore and Washington’s Brian Baird as recent voluntary retirees. Of course, this has electoral implications; nearly all of these districts are vulnerable as open seats to a Republican challenge.

More important to me is that these Members are solid citizens of the House, concerned about the process and the institution. Tanner has been a stalwart in particular on redistricting, working hard to try to make the process a fair one.

Baird’s retirement is a particular blow to all who care about continuity of government — which sadly seems to include precious few Members of Congress. Baird has been a stalwart since 9/11, trying tirelessly to build a plan to make sure that when — not if, when — the next attack occurs on Washington, Congress can replenish itself and if necessary reconstitute as quickly as possible. I have to believe that his frustration at the failure of his party’s leadership to do any more than their predecessors in this area has something to do with his departure.

There are many reasons, especially personal and family ones, for these veteran lawmakers to end their careers prematurely. But the nasty partisan atmosphere in Congress and in our politics more generally also plays a part.

Norman Ornstein is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.