Feckless Democrats

The Democrats won big last November, taking the White House and dramatically expanding their majorities in both chambers of Congress.  Political prognosticators saw in the results more than the normal swing of the electoral pendulum.  The election, it was said, bore out historic realignment rooted in demographics and exemplified in the person of Obama.  An increasingly diverse country trending leftward was said to portend to a new era of Democratic dominance.

But if Democrats are in the driver’s seat, how is it that they’re having so much trouble passing their legislative priorities?  Why should health care overhaul and climate change legislation be hanging in the balance when Democrats enjoy a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and a whopping 257-178-seat advantage in the House?

One answer is that numbers are deceiving.  Will Rogers’ line about not belonging to organized political party, but rather being a Democrat holds true today.  Democrats, as ever, are not monolithic.  Their ranks include unapologetic liberals from urban areas as well as fiscally conservative “Blue Dogs” from right-leaning districts, mostly in the south.  Democratic senators represent traditionally conservative Montana and North Dakota.  In the House there are 49 red-district Democrats.  The same dynamic does not feature prominently across the aisle.  Just a handful of moderate GOP senators and congressmen represent blue states or districts.

Progressive legislation, therefore, must be passed with virtually no Republican support and relatively minimal Democratic defection.  Take Waxman-Markey, a bill to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases linked to global warming that squeaked though the House last June by the narrowest of margins (219-212).  An analysis of that vote by Ronald Brownstein of the National Review found that 59 percent of the Democrats from districts that McCain carried voted against the bill, while just seven percent of Democrats in Obama-majority districts did likewise.  Just eight (eight!) Republicans supported the measure, but of that group seven represent districts that backed Obama last November.

Brownstein’s analysis tells an important story but not the whole story.  It demonstrates that Democrats huge numerical advantage in Congress is largely illusory, at least with respect to sweeping legislative initiatives that are highly partisan in nature.  But even if red-state Democrats peel off, liberals should still prevail, as Waxman-Markey demonstrated.  Does the same hold true in the Senate?  No.  Unlike the House, where a majority of one is sufficient to win the day, the Senate typically requires a much higher threshold of 60 votes to overcome a filibuster.  Thus, Senate Democrats must maintain absolute discipline to pass contentious legislation (or minimal defection offset by Republican defections).  End of story?  Not quite.

An energized White House with a strong mandate coupled with the large majorities the Democrats enjoy in Congress should be sufficient to overcome the inherent inertia of the lawmaking process, particularly on health care and climate change where a majority of the public supports in broad terms the sort of changes sought by the administration.  The iconoclasm of a minority of moderate Democratic lawmakers alone cannot explain the difficulties encountered by the White House on its main legislative priorities.  Another factor is far more decisive.

Industry is naturally keenly interested in the legislative process.  With billions of dollars at stake it couldn’t be otherwise.  Policies that are good for industry, however, are not necessarily good policies.   As former Labor Secretary Robert Reich observed, “Very few things happen in Washington that are in the public’s interest when corporations have huge financial stakes in the game.”  The clash over reforming health care vindicates Reich’s sober assessment.

So it is that there are six lobbyists representing health care interests for every member of Congress and that collectively they’ve spent quarter of a billion dollars influence peddling.  So it is that political committees associated with Senator Max Baucus, a critical player in the health care debate, received nearly $1.5 million in 2007 and 2008 from health-related companies and their employees, and that the sector gave almost $170 million to federal lawmakers over those two years, with 54 percent going to Democrats.  So it is that reform is stifled.

It’s a similar story with climate change.  Oil and gas companies have spent loads to defeat legislation to limit greenhouse gas emissions.  They have even bankrolled efforts to discredit the science behind global warming.  Most recently, a PR firm hired by a pro-coal industry group sent forged letters to lawmakers from prominent organizations arguing against climate legislation.  What is true for health care and climate change is also true for other areas of policy.  Frustrated by the power of the finance industry to turn back consumer-friendly bankruptcy to address the foreclosure crisis, Senator Dick Durbin lashed out.  Banks, he said in reference to Congress, “own the place.”  If only it were just the banks.  And if only they owned just Republicans.

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