The Congress Party

Jonathan Chait has an interesting article in the New Republic on Democratic dysfunction in governing Washington. I have a variety of quibbles with Chait’s narrative, in which the iron discipline of the GOP has given way to the weak-kneed moderates undercutting Obama’s liberalism. Among them:
-His retelling of the enactment of the Bush tax cuts ignores the episode in which a member of the GOP caucus switched parties in revolt over the tax agenda and threw control of the Senate to the other party, which is rather a larger problem with party unity than Obama has yet faced.
-Chait ignores the Social Security fiasco, which occurred while the GOP had a solid majority. Typically of Chait, his narrative of the Bush Administration fails to note that Bush was re-elected.
-Chait recognizes the tension between liberalism and self-interested home-state interests (including rural-state farm policy) but neglects to recognize the same dynamic among Republicans, who often found fiscal conservatism stymied by members of Congress who wanted to protect things like farm subsidies or earmarked transportation projects. To say that “[t]his sort of behavior didn’t hurt Bush because his agenda largely was synonymous with business interests” is to overlook those tensions.
-Chait ignores the unifying effect of the war on Republican party discipline; in fact, he ignores the existence of foreign and national security policy altogether.
-Chait ignores instances of Congressional Democrats pushing Obama leftward, rather than rightward.
-Chait’s discussion of the filibuster ignores its prominent deployment by liberals, Obama among them, to hold up judicial nominees.
-Chait fails to address the possibility that the last three Democratic presidents have had things in common that made it more difficult to deal with Washington. Jimmy Carter was a relatively inexperienced governor and a stranger to national politics until 1976; Bill Clinton came from a tiny state and had not been much involved in national debates before 1992 (although at least Clinton had been a governor for a decade and headed the National Governors Association, so he wasn’t starting totally from scratch); and Obama most of all is a guy who was elected direectly from being a first-term, wet-behind-the-ears backbench Senator. By contrast, the last seven GOP Presidents going back to Hoover have all been either familiar faces in DC (what Bush lacked in formal experience in Washington he’d made up through working with his father’s campaigns and White House) and/or major national figures over an extended period before becoming president. It’s harder to get Congress to listen to you if you have neither a built-in base of respect nor the executive chops to tell people what to do (LBJ, the last Democratic president who’d been a somebody to Washington insiders before his election, had no trouble keeping Congress in line). One of the continuing issues will be the extent to which Obama defers to Congress in the writing of legislation, with the attendant additional delay and loss of control, rather than leaning on Congress to accept things as the White House lays them out (granted, in the health care debate, Clinton went too far in the opposite direction).
Anyway, it’s worth reading despite all of that, and I especially liked this passage, which does encapsulate the differing cultures of the two parties in Washington:

Since Democrats controlled the Congress almost continuously for more than 60 years beginning in 1933, the culture of Congress left a deeper imprint on their party. Republicans, shut out from the perks of majority status, finally decided under the opposition leadership of Newt Gingrich in the 1990s that their only path to power lay in partisan discipline.
Democrats, on the other hand, came of age under the old Democratic chieftains, and they have mostly aped that style. They do not fall in line, even under a Democratic president who mostly shares their goals. Shortly after Obama took office, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced, “I don’t work for him.” Even House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel, whose Harlem constituents danced in the streets after Obama’s election, sniffed of Obama’s plan to raise taxes on the rich, “I have to study it but I really don’t take presidents’ recommendations that seriously.” Recommendation–that is the term that summarizes Congress’s attitude. A president can suggest whatever he likes, but Congress is the one making the decisions, and don’t you forget it.