One Party Government No Longer Works
Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
Members of Congress both in the Senate and the House used actually to like each other and get along. They had many substantial disagreements but they played golf together, went to dinner together, and compromised on legislation. Staffs from both sides of the aisle drafted bills and then Members resolved differences collegially. Administration bills went to Capitol Hill and then Members from both parties re-wrote them. Differences were not always easily resolved between Congress and the White House but the process worked. What was important was that even when one party controlled both Houses of Congress and the Presidency, as is the case today, there was a built in role for the minority especially in the Senate. There, in many instances, a minority could actually put the brakes on most legislation that went significantly beyond the consensus. Presidential vetoes were always a possibility to control run-away Congresses as the Founding Fathers intended.
Today it is readily apparent that with the Republicans in control in Washington, that there is little interest in genuine bi-partisan governing. For a long time, the Democrats had very different wings in their party as do the Republicans today, but there were usually internal trade-offs or coalitions made across the aisle with different wings of the opposition. There were Dixiecrats, Democrats from the South, and moderate Republicans, largely from the Northeast. Parties were unified on national security or fiscal issues, but not on social issues. Majorities often could find partners on the other side of the aisle.
Since passage of the 1974 Congressional Reform Act a new wrinkle was added to challenge single party governance; the budgetary process of reconciliation. It can require key committees to comply with budgetary instructions in regard to spending, revenue, and debt ceiling. This tool permitted Congress to bypass a potential Senate filibuster which requires 60 votes to invoke cloture and stop dilatory, blocking debate. It enabled a simple majority to be sufficient for passage. Prior to 2017 it has been employed 24 times since 1980.
Since the new Congress arrived in January, reconciliation is the procedure that was invoked three times by the Republican controlled Congress to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. (This process had in fact actually been used in 2010 by Democrats to pass the Affordable Care before they lost control of Congress.)
This system has dramatically heightened partisanship in Washington and impeded Government action even when a President is actually, seriously engaged in making laws. The current Congress is governing according to the rules of the American way but legislating as in a parliamentary system where the Government requires only the support of its members. In such Governments, members are more ideologically in agreement on most issues enabling the Party–or coalition of parties–in power to act. If Washington continues to fail even to consider the interests of the minority, single party control at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue could dramatically change the American governmental system.
At the end of last week, in the final days of Fiscal Year 2017, the Senate—which is the body most affected by reconciliation–moved ahead on the Budget Resolution for 2018. By inserting language on reconciliation into the FY 2018 Budget Resolution on spending and revenues, key committees have instructions now with which they would be required to comply. As the Republicans control both Houses and do not anticipate a veto, they can pass legislation in both chambers. Their problem is whether they can bring their own colleagues into line, without needing to compromise with the Democrats.
(The viability of the President’s recent agreement with the Congressional Democrats will bring much of this to a head in December when the extensions on the debt ceiling, the budget, and taxes will expire and must be resolved,)
As Congress is unlikely to change the Congressional Reform Act, Democrats may well be hard pressed to block a tax bill under reconciliation assuming the Republicans can find agreement. While this may be a big question, it should at least inform the Democrats of the need to prepare their party for mid-year elections with a unified message and focus. Should they achieve victory in one chamber, the challenge will be to see if a divided government can then return Congress to regular orders?