While listening to last week’s Slate Political Gabfest, I noticed an interesting slip of the tongue from David Plotz, the Editor of Slate. In the segment of the show on inequality (at 23:10), he said that some left-wing economic legislation has no chance “because Congress, which is Republican-controlled” would block it.
My first thought was simply that he was wrong, and had made a rather surprising error for a top Washington journalist. The Democrats control the Senate and the Republicans control the House. It’s a standard mixed-government situation.
But, on reflection, this slip-up makes a striking point. In a sense, the Republicans do control Congress because they have total blocking power in the House and enough votes to filibuster in the Senate. The capacity to prevent action can be more significant than the capacity to create or destroy. The Republicans, if they stay largely unified, have an effective veto over any legislation. For a party that prefers the status quo on immigration, for example, to any reforms advocated by the President or Congressional Democrats, this is particularly valuable.
At the same time, this ability to prevent legislative action is problematic. To be sure, this is the way the system was designed (more on the inherent conservatism of the U.S. Constitution in a couple of weeks), but that does not make the end result any less troubling. The consistent use of blocking power further slows the nation’s policymaking reflexes and contributes to partisan distrust.
The current state of the system will not change appreciably until at least 2016. Even if the Republicans take over the Senate this fall, President Obama will likely veto any conservative legislation that comes from Capitol Hill, and the chance of the Democrats taking back the House is almost nil. This will set up another win-or-the-country-is-destroyed election for both sides in 2016, with each attempting to gain enough control to demonstrably change policy, but the victor not gaining quite enough ground to deny blocking power to the other.
If the Democrats end up in a blocking minority position without the Presidency after 2016, that could provide an interesting comparison with the ways that the Republicans are using their power now. Left-wing people generally think of their representatives as too virtuous to take such a path, but I suspect only a lack of caucus cohesion can prevent Democrats from extracting some gridlocked revenge in a few years’ time. There isn’t a lot of support to be gained from going along with your opponents these days.
The upshot? Don’t expect any big changes. Blocking power is important and easily retained in the American political system.