By Mark Mellman - 01/06/09 05:15 PM EST
Last year, voters embraced major change at the ballot box; but the ability of our political system to deliver the bold policy changes people want remains in question.
By devising a government of separate institutions sharing power, the Founders created a massive, systemic bias toward inaction, which was compounded by Senate rule-makers who first allowed the filibuster, and then required 60 votes to break it.
Agreement among 218 members of the House, 60 senators and a president on major policy shifts is hard to achieve, and therefore relatively rare.
However, history suggests that four conditions — summarized by the initials C3-F — increase the odds of a significant change in course. The three C’s represent crisis, consensus and control, while the F stands for fear.
Crisis is a critical impetus to action, though the level of catastrophe required to jolt our system into action far exceeds the standard definition of “crisis.” Confronted with the fact that Social Security checks would stop going out within days, Congress and the president reformed the system in 1983, but have not done so since. George Bush relied on the erroneous specter of mushroom clouds billowing over American cities to sell legislators on war in Iraq. Congress acted on the recent Wall Street bailout convinced that the nation’s economy was in imminent danger of total collapse.
Few domestic issues ever meet that standard of crisis, though. Deficits, healthcare, global warming and energy never quite reach the point where the failure to act immediately leads to irrevocable disaster.
Consensus also begets action. Not long ago, a major FDA reform, opposed by a majority of Americans, passed the Congress with few dissenting votes because members agreed among themselves, and with the administration, that it was the right thing to do. Sometimes decisionmakers can unite on a course of action and make it happen.
We will soon see whether the quiet talks under way on Capitol Hill on critical issues from healthcare to energy have forged sufficient consensus to make action possible.
Control can obviate the need for bipartisan consensus. When one party or the other has total control of the White House and both Houses of Congress, they can do big things. Democrats had a 26-seat margin in the Senate and an 83-seat margin in the House, as well as the presidency, when the Civil Rights Act became law. When Medicare passed, Democrats controlled the White House along with a comfortable 36-seat margin in the Senate and a 155-seat margin in the House.
Alas, even after two wonderful cycles, Democrats do not have those kinds of majorities, but it is conceivable that 59 Democratic senators and 257 House Democrats will exert sufficient control to pass major legislation.
Finally, along with the 3 C’s is an F — fear. When elected officials fear the wrath of voters, they frequently become more malleable. That brand of extraordinary political anxiety led many Democrats to vote aye on Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts. More recently, GOPers supported a minimum wage hike and Medicare prescription drug coverage for the same reason. After their miserable showing in two straight cycles, Republicans have every reason to be frightened enough to fall in line behind a number of significant Obama initiatives.
Were the multiple crises we face the only impulse toward change — as was the case after 2006 — voters’ longings would likely remain unrequited. However, decisionmakers may achieve enough consensus — and Democrats enough control — and Republicans may feel sufficient fear to overcome the systemic bias toward gridlock and produce the bold change Americans crave.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.