In 2013, Republicans told us that they couldn’t pass any of the laws they campaigned on, because they only controlled one house of Congress. Because the Senate would reject any of it, they weren’t even going to try, choosing to bide their time rather than force votes onto the record. In 2015, Republicans gained both houses of Congress, and moved on to telling us that Obama would veto anything important, they didn’t have a veto-proof majority, and that we should wait on a Republican President who would actually sign whatever legislation was passed. Beginning in less than two weeks, Republicans will hold the Presidency, both houses of Congress, the greatest majority of Governorships since 1922, and similar state legislature control.
The first, top priority Republicans have set is repealing Obamacare, and they’ve already told us that they don’t have the filibuster-proof votes needed to do so in it’s entirety.
I mention this all not to claim that they are wrong, but to place into context the obvious frustration of grassroots Republicans in their elected leaders, who have simply piled on excuses for years that may or may not be reasons, producing little in tangible results for their constituents at the federal level. It’s already old hat to take the phrase “this is why Trump won”, and apply it to everything you don’t like about your political or cultural opposition. But in this case, I don’t think it’s even contested to say frustration with Washington and elected politicians was a big part of his rise.
This frustration has lead to calls for suspension of Senate rules with the nuclear option, passing partial repeal in a budgetary bill with it’s 51 rather than 60 vote requirement, and worst of all, kicking the can even further down the road with changes not taking effect for years.
It is progressives and leftists who are well known for claiming that the ends justify the means as part of their ideology, expressed most famously through Trotsky’s “Their morals and ours” and Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for radicals”. It is conservatives, traditionally, who have respected the process and institutions and tended to confine their advocacy within it, giving respect to the reasons for some of the very rules confining them. The filibuster may currently be a roadblock to repeal, but much more often it’s used as a roadblock to prevent new legislation and the expansion of government rather than the opposite. If anything, there are other rules for confining congressional action that could have prevented some of the worst parts of Obamacare and could prevent new negative legislation in the future that Congress would be more just in pursuing than tanking Senate procedure for this short term gain.
Obamacare, which overhauled the entire healthcare system of the US, was thousands of pages long, and many members of congress weren’t even presented with the full bill until just before the vote, with no time to even study it. Democrats did not allow Republican amendments, or substantial debate, or any kind of niceties usually used to build consensus, even if that consensus generally just comes in the form of adding pork. It was passed in the short window of time where Democrats had exactly enough votes, and without a single Republican signing on. I’m not sure there has been a passed bill more partisan in my lifetime.
The most important first steps I see to addressing these problems are common sense, universally (outside of congress and among all major parties) supported changes like the Read the Bills Act and the One Subject at a Time Act. The only people I know of who oppose either of these, are those who directly benefit from things remaining as they are, and that’s a very small group comprised entirely of lobbyists and congressmen. And this is exactly why neither would actually be passed by Congress. Like term limits or a balanced budget amendment, these reforms (despite being supported overwhelmingly by those who elect Congress) are destined to fail because Congress is unlikely to ever vote to limit their own power. The ability to silently slip in laws and projects into bills that are thousands of pages in order to avoid transparency is, in this century, how consensus is built in Congress. It allows favors to be distributed discretely, and the process is prized by those who couldn’t justify their actions to their constituents in sunlight. The law of dispersed costs and concentrated benefits which relies on apathy would face too many hurdles if every action was viewed singularly.
The Read The Bills Act, simply, says that Congress should be required to read the bills they pass. This doesn’t seem like a requirement that should garner any opposition whatsoever, but when Rand Paul introduced the legislation in 2012 and again in 2015, he couldn’t get a single cosponsor. Not one. It would have required Congress to simply certify that they have read the bill or had it read to them, and require that enough time passes between introduction of the bill and a vote on the bill based on the bill’s length to allow them to do so (24 hours for every 100 pages of text, specifically, which doesn’t seem even close to unreasonable).
The One Subject At A Time Act is also exactly what you’d expect as well. It, quite simply, requires bills to stick to their subject matter. For instance, if the bill relates to interstate highways, it can’t also address creating a military base in South Carolina. If it addresses healthcare, it shouldn’t also award contracts to some construction company in Illinois to build a government office. Only in Washington, could a requirement that require Congress consider one thing at a time, instead of bundling so many–often unrelated– things together, guarantee it’s own failure. On this one, only Rand Paul would support it, but again… those who opposed it never did so publicly.
The lack of any coherent argument opposing such common sense requirements is exactly why none were actually made. Instead, other Senators simply never cosponsored the bills, they were never brought up for a vote, and they died quiet deaths. Ironically, it is exactly this kind of attitude and parliamentary maneuvering that both highlight the need for reforms like these and ensure their demise, simultaneously.