Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

11 February 2018

Majority Rule: What a Concept!


[For a note on how to do good by doing well and taking profits, click here. For seven reasons for us to deploy small nukes, click here. For comment on our desperate need to save the Dreamers, click here. For my prediction of a coming stock-market crash, click here. For links to popular recent posts, click here.]

Even more quickly than the first, the second government shutdown in less than a month was over almost as soon as it began. In a relative eyeblink, Congress had spent another $560-plus billion, $329 billion of which will go on the tab.

What happened? What cleared the legislative logjam? Something extraordinary, almost miraculous, at least in the last generation. Congress actually acted by a bipartisan majority.

The vote tallies tell the tale:

Votes on the Big Budget Bill

SenateHouse
For71240
Against28186
Percent For71.7%56.3%


The Senate’s vote was veto -proof. Only the fractious and half-demented House might have failed to overturn a presidential veto. But no veto came. Our president was eager to chalk up a win—any win—to improve the dismal legislative record of his presidency.

To understand what made this bipartisan success so miraculous, we must review some recent history. In each House, the leadership now determines what bills get a vote. Period.

What does that mean? There are several majority “leaders” in each House, but the “leadership” is not a democracy. It’s basically a one-man dictatorship, as it has been throughout our history, except for Nancy Pelosi’s brief speakership, 2007-2011. The Senate Majority Leader (now Mitch McConnell) calls the shots in the Senate, and the Speaker (now Paul Ryan) calls the shots in the House.

In the House, the rule is semi-formal. It’s called the “Hastert Rule,” in “honor” of Dennis Hastert, a former football and wrestling coach released last year from prison for sexual abuse and paying hush money, who was Speaker from 1999 to 2007. Like any good dictator, he decided that no bill would reach the House floor for debate or a vote unless it had a majority of the House Republican Caucus.

Think about that. For most of the last generation, Congress has been about equally divided between Republicans and Democrats. Just to illustrate the principle, let’s say the division is 50-50. Then under the Hastert Rule, no bill gets debate or a vote unless a majority of Republicans, or 26% of the whole House, supports it. Just half of the Republican Caucus, or 25% of the whole House, can keep any bill from reaching the floor for debate or a vote.

If you want to know the source of our recent—and seemingly incurable—government dysfunction, you need look no further than that. The Hastert Rule imposes minority rule on our House, by which 25% of the whole body have, in effect, an absolute veto on legislation. This rule allows crazies like the Tea Party and the so-called “Freedom Caucus” to rule us all, although even together they constitute a small minority.

The rule in the Senate is less formal and rigid. But it has much the same effect. Nothing gets to the floor unless Mitch McConnell decides that it has the majority support of the GOP and is good for the GOP politically. Political tactics compete with policy and often take precedence. Remember preserving “the issue” for the next election, rather than doing anything to resolve it?

Add to that the custom of Senate “holds,” by which a single senator can delay any bill or appointment to death, and you have something very close to anarchy. And all this is without even mentioning filibusters, which require a 60% vote to get most things done in the Senate.

What once kept this bizarre and dysfunctional system from collapsing under its own weight was the quaint notion of congressional “comity.” Once upon a time, members of Congress had respect for and even friendships with each other, including members of the opposing party. Once upon a time, individual members had the good grace to let a majority of a whole chamber (House or Senate) rule, even if they and their constituents disagreed with it. Once upon a time, neither individual members nor congressional leadership took every opportunity to gum up the legislative works, but reserved their “veto" power for once-in-a-decade disputes about which they felt extraordinarily strongly. Once upon a time, our nation followed the oldest and most fundamental principle of democracy, derived from the ancient Greeks and Romans: majority rule.

But not during most of the last generation. The Majority Leader in the Senate and the Speaker of the House each assumed the power of veto dictators. So did some individual senators, using the custom of Senate holds. The result has been the gross dysfunction of government that has hobbled our nation for the last generation, no matter which party had the majority or which captured the presidency. Although our Founders had decried and feared the impact of “faction” (partisanship), in their wildest nightmares they never could have imagined it would get this bad.

The burning question, of course, is whether this bipartisan bill is a sign that our representatives are coming to their senses. Or is it just a one-of achievement, a temporary patch for the reputations of our most dysfunctional president and Congress ever. At the moment, it’s hard to tell.

It’s easy to give away money and put the bill on the tab, even when you don’t think what the other party wants money for is wise or proper. It’s even easy for the GOP, which (except for Rand Paul) seems hardly to notice the gross hypocrisy and economic nonsense of bewailing debt when Obama was president and our economy badly needed a stimulus but letting it roll when Trump is president and the economy is running on all cylinders.

What will happen when it’s not just a matter of throwing a big money party and letting our kids pay for it? What will happen when there’s a clear disagreement on policy and a clear bipartisan majority, but no clear majority in the majority party?

That precise situation may confront us when the DACA/Dreamers issue comes up for a vote. McConnell has promised to permit debate on it this week. Time will tell, and we will have an answer fairly soon.

In the meantime, we must wrestle with the most inexperienced, erratic and downright ornery president in our history—one so unpredictable that Speaker Ryan challenged him to make up his mind on DACA and the Dreamers before agreeing to do anything about them. In the meantime, we must cope with increasing discord and dissension among us, which delight Vladimir Putin, who helped cause them.

The Internet has helped Putin and our own native extremists destroy common sense in our politics. But the Internet also offers us a helpful metaphor: “the wisdom of the crowd.” Isn’t that just what majority rule is, stripped of its modern high-tech clothing?

If we can just somehow return to the days when legislators had mutual respect, socialized together, and even got drunk together, we might capture that metaphor and put it back in our Congress. Then, and only then, could we begin making America great again. We won’t have long to wait to see whether this bipartisan big-spending bill is the start of that process or just a flash in the partisan-extremist pan.

Endnote: The Markets. The markets rose Friday, driven by continuing euphoria and perhaps some hope that one act of governmental functioning might lead to another. Yet this particular act of legislative comity itself bears the seeds of further market turmoil: about a third of a trillion dollars of new government debt. Coming after last year’s $1.5 trillion tax giveaway to corporations and the rich, who didn’t ask for it, didn’t expect it, don’t deserve it, and probably will just invest it, the new budget means that our government will be doing a lot of borrowing soon.

That borrowing will come at a time when our own Fed and central banks worldwide are just closing the “free money” windows and perhaps even raising interest rates to head of wage-price driven inflation. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.

As it when it happens, geezers like me will get tired of trying to guess what next act of intransigence and stupidity on the part of Congress or our president will tank the stock markets yet again. We’ll satisfy ourselves with more normal bond returns and a peaceful senescence free of spasms of greed or fear.

Since there are a whole lot of us geezers in the Baby Boomer cohort, a lot of money will leave the stock market and settle into sleepy, dull bonds. So I wouldn’t count on a sustained recovery of the “Trump Bump” anytime soon—or anytime at all while we have a one-man roulette wheel in the White House and a Congress that defies majority rule.

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