January 20, 2010

To My International Readers

All the fuss about the United States’ new Senator, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, may have left non-U.S. watchers of political events here more than a little confused. You might get the impression that President Obama is now out of power, or politically on the ropes, or that somehow the Republicans have taken control of the government from underneath Obama.

This is not the case. Democrats still have firm control over both houses of our Congress. As you might know, our national legislature is divided into two houses, and both of them are and have been under the control of the Democratic Party since 2006. The question is one of how much control they have. One of the two houses of Congress is called the Senate and there is a tradition in the Senate called the “filibuster.” Basically, no Senator interrupts another Senator while they are talking. This allows even a single Senator to give a very long speech, and the rest of the Senate has to wait and listen to him (or her) and cannot vote on anything until the Senator is done. We’ve had instances in our history when Senators have tried to stop laws from passing by literally reading telephone directories out loud.

Yes, I know that's a shockingly inefficient way to do things. That’s why there’s something called “cloture.” When one Senator is doing this, another Senator can gather the signatures of his colleagues on a petition, and if there are enough of them, they can force the Senate to vote on whether or not to interrupt the one who is speaking and cut his speech off. In order for that to happen, there has to be a super-majority, and the limit has been set by the rules of the Senate at 60 votes. So if one Senator is talking and talking to prevent the Senate from acting, if 60 of his colleagues agree, then he can be cut off.

Until Tuesday, the Democrats had 60 votes in the Senate, so if they kept perfect party discipline, they could break a filibuster and do what they want despite whatever objections the Republicans might have. Scott Brown is a Republican who is replacing a Democrat, and that means that now the Democrats have only 59 votes. That’s still a significant margin of majority.  What Scott Brown's election means is that if both parties keep perfect discipline, the Democrats cannot use closture to stop the Republicans from shutting down the Senate with a filibuster.

See, our political parties aren’t like European political parties; if one Senator were to switch sides on a particular issue, there would not be much the parties could do to hurt him for doing it. So please don’t think that we’ve had some kind of dramatic re-alignment in political power here in the U.S.A. The President’s political party has suffered a setback; its formerly "overwhelming advantage" has now diminished to merely a "strong advantage."

The real problem with the President’s party is that it is too poorly-organized to have put together a health care reform on its own even when its advantage was overwhelming as opposed to "merely" strong. I speak in this post about perfect party discipline, which is a difficult thing for Republicans do to and a practical impossibility for the Democrats. There are a lot of reasons for that which I don’t have time to get into in this post, but here’s what you beyond the borders of the States really need to understand: American political institutions are designed so that it’s very difficult for any one party to take and sustain an overwhelming political advantage. The political balance of power is always going to seesaw back and forth; we’ve built our political system to virtually guarantee that this happens pretty much constantly. Both the basic disorganization of the majority party and the victory of a minority party candidate in our recent election are two of the many different ways that institutional dynamic plays out.

That is all.  You may return now to your bizarre fascinations with existentialism, soccer, and smoking, and thank you for your attention.


Michael Grant said...

It so doesn't sound any better when you explain it. People around the world shouldn't have to know this about the world's only superpower.

Burt Likko said...

Damn it, I should have said "snail-eating, soccer, and smoking." That alliterates and is therefore funnier.