The Following is Laced with Bitterness

Not actually, but I am slightly annoyed and confused.

The biggest problem facing my generation is a dysfunctional legislature handicapped by it’s own antiquated rules and procedures that no longer serve any meaningful purpose. It’s a problem that supersedes  the rest; it stifles our ability to tackle any other major issue successfully.

That was the question asked by the editors of The Nation for their annual student writing contest: what is the biggest problem facing your generation. What were selected as the winning essays are nothing more than filler, subjects barely worthy of having 800 words devoted to them—except one regarding climate change, but as has been evident, and like I’ve said, I double-dog dare you to do anything meaningful about climate change in a de facto 60-vote Senate.

I don’t have much to say regarding the first place entry, a beautifully written retrospective on the Virginia Tech shooting. While it would be deserving of publication on it’s own merits, it doesn’t really address the question.

Answers from the other essays include apathy, evidenced by low turnout on election day. That’s definitely a problem, but the biggest? This is universal; every generation, when its members were ages 18-24, was lazy and apathetic toward politics. (Save for the kids that were newly allowed to vote immediately following the passage of the 26th amendment, but that’s totally different). Another essay espoused the evils of mobile telephones, or technology, or rampant ADHD. Hard to tell what the point was, or how on Earth it could possibly be classified as THE biggest problem facing our generation.

There was, for what is probably the 1,000th time in the past couple months, a condemnation of mixed-market capitalism. That there are currently millions of unemployed and underemployed Americans isn’t a refutation of our economic system as much as it is a refutation of our policymakers and the institutions they inhabit. We’re in what essentially is a textbook financial crisis/balance sheet recession. There are policies that could have had us out of it by now, but unfortunately…well, see step one.

There was one other essay, on the terrible state of American journalism, that was poignant. Some may recognize it as “The Cult of Balance”. James Fallows of the Atlantic and Paul Krugman have been hitting at this for a long time. Climate Change, while existentially important, is obvious; it’s nice to see someone hit on a more subtle and nuanced topic.

I’m sticking to my guns, though. The political realities of today are incompatible with the political systems they must operate within. Is it really surprising, though, considering those systems were designed in the 1700s? Hardly.

There is an observable phenomenon here. It’s the inability to get an incredibly important point specifically related to congressional procedure across, regardless of effort; to be rendered mute by the popular discourse. It shall be christened henceforth as EKS, or Ezra Klein Syndrome, after its first victim (at least, the first victim I cared to notice). Read this interview he conducted with Matt Miller, who with many other equally naïve men and women have been crooning for a third-party candidate to run for the presidency. It’s a stunning example of the cognitive dissonance that inundates the airwaves and broadsheets.

People can talk all they want about how the passage of the PPACA was heated and controversial due to President Obama’s inability to sell it to the public, or because it wasn’t “bipartisan”. It’s all trash; Representatives and Senators are big boys and girls, and they hold the ultimate power in passing legislation. The truth is that the Senate has become a dysfunctional, paralyzed body wherein a dedicated and unflinching minority can halt everything and relax in full confidence, knowing that no political harm will be meted out. Better yet, not only has such a minority continued to steamroll every rule and norm that has been established over the entire history of the chamber, they will do so knowing that they’ll actually come out net positive thanks to the opaque and insipid nature of these tactics.

If only parliamentary procedure was sexy! Maybe then there would be some hope of doing something about it. Here’s to hoping that my generation has a moment of clarity and realizes our actual handicap. My losing entry for the contest follows, after the jump.

* * * * * * * * * *

In the wake of the 2008 presidential election, it seemed that the country was ready to move in a new direction. In recalling the excitement of the following weeks, it felt as if I and countless others were fueled by some tonic mixture of clarity, anticipation, and vindication. The election seemed to mark a return to sensibility, to progress instead of mire, and to thinking with the head instead of something vaguely located in the abdomen. To say these things felt sorely needed is an understatement; as a nation, we faced a myriad of monumental problems: a health care system failing millions of people; an economy and middle class in shambles; and global climate change advancing at such a rate that the deleterious effects of which were fast approaching, to name a few.

Despite the gravitas of the situation and the opportunity at hand, it became apparent that there was no transcending of “politics-as-usual” happening, that post-partisanship was foundering in a world that won’t allow it. Thanks to the power of hindsight, it’s easy to view the exuberance as being incredibly naïve. While the ambitions and goals of the candidates I helped to elect may have warranted enthusiasm, the warped paradigm of American governance was destined to disappoint.

Our politics have evolved; the two great parties in America have become increasingly ideologically cohesive over the past few decades. On its own this doesn’t represent a great threat; having two parties with markedly different policy goals allows voters to make clear choices between real alternatives. As this evolution has occurred, however, the institutions they operate in and the rules that instruct those institutions have not. The American polity remains, in form and function, not far removed from its 18th century self. As such, the Congress—the Senate in particular—has become a place where the minority has no political benefit from meaningful engagement. It’s to their far greater advantage to simply ensure that the majority fails. However counter-intuitive it may seem to win favor through an obstruction campaign designed to cripple the ability of government to confront the very issues the voters are concerned about, this obstruction works.

The Senate’s modern filibuster has evolved over several decades, but it hasn’t been until recently that its use on almost every order of business has been incentivized by intense polarization. The opacity of our political system and the availability of these further obfuscating tools come into near-perfect alignment, giving a unitary minority unprecedented ability to effectively force the majority into capitulating or simply accomplishing nothing. Staggering political brinkmanship is now par for the course. By handicapping the legislative process, manipulating the next news-cycle, and making the country effectively ungovernable, the minority wins. And they have been winning handily, as is evidenced by the 2010 midterm elections.

Take for example the health care debate that raged throughout 2009, or the many other legislative battles that followed. The constant threshold of sixty votes to overcome now perfunctory filibusters posed a nearly insurmountable obstacle even for a Democratic supermajority. Alternatively, in cases where obtaining sixty votes wasn’t guaranteed, attempts to sway the necessary one or two senators (representing a minuscule fraction of America) led to a series of bad-faith negotiations that served only to drastically weaken the bill in favor of the interests and industries targeted for reform. Individual senators would pull out of talks and declare the bill dead upon obtaining the desired concessions. Most often this would result in progressive solutions (the “public option” being the most notable) being eliminated. In this environment, every senator has veto power akin to or perhaps even greater than the president.

Though devastating, it’s important to note that the obstruction doesn’t begin and end with passing bills into law; it extends to the basic duties of running an effective government. It is now common and uneventful to see a lone senator blocking a presidential nominee, regardless of importance. This includes nominees to federal judgeships, sub-cabinet level officials, and the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. At times, this endless obstruction plays no other role than to waste extremely valuable time, forcing these tasks that would normally be routine and uncontroversial to be foregone completely.

All of this amounts to a system that is unworkable. The circumstances we live in, political and otherwise, are changing. And yet our political institutions remain obdurate. The most infuriating aspect of this is that the challenges that my generation faces are all solvable. There are proven solutions to addressing climate change, providing health care, and reducing unemployment. But these solutions stand no chance of coming to fruition. The most exigent issue we face is a system that has ceased being effective, and the only people with the power to solve this problem seem uninterested or incapable of doing so.


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