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June 1, 2012 / Sandy Asher

YOU CAN’T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT — AND WHY IT SEEMS TO TAKE FOREVER

Americans are an impatient people, nowhere more so than in the world of politics. We want fast solutions to complicated issues. That’s why candidates for political office promise quick fixes for whatever ails us – fixes so quick they can be summarized in a sound byte and accomplished “on Day One of my administration.”  

Invariably, Day One comes and goes, then 100 days, and the promises are either unkept or broken, leaving us to fume in frustration.

What we’re taught in school – an overview of the three branches of government, the checks and balances, the Bill of Rights, and often an illustrated or even animated description of how a bill makes its way into law – reinforces our expectation of quick results. In textbook government, once a serious problem is identified, Congress and the president address it.  Political differences are set aside to advance the public good.  Problems are solved, or at least eased, and prevented from recurring.

Is it wrong to promote student patriotism and civic responsibility by emphasizing the positive?  Is it wrong to encourage children to believe in Santa Claus?  Debatable issues.   The fact remains that in reality, for the most part, progress made through American democratic politics consists of a slow, but fairly steady, series of minor victories achieved through reluctant compromises between Republicans and Democrats.    Understandably, the snail’s pace can lead to frustration, anger, and disappointment.  There is consolation, though, in knowing that however belabored the process, small and/or partial victories are more the norm than the exception. In 1906 Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, turned the stomach of Americans about the meat industry, with its inhumane slaughter methods, unsanitary storage practices, and unsafe working conditions. Public outrage led President Theodore Roosevelt to read the riot act to the meat industry, and with the cooperation of Congress, get legislation passed to remove the abuses and assure the public safe meat consumption. 

How that happened was complex and cumbersome. TR asked the Commissioner of Labor and a New York Attorney General to undertake an independent investigation. Its report indicated that Sinclair, if anything, had understated the problems.  Roosevelt threatened to release the report unless the meat packers halted their misconduct. When he learned that the packers still intended to resist government regulation, he had Indiana Senator Albert Beveridge introduce a regulatory bill as an amendment to a House Agricultural Appropriations Bill to make sure funds were available for hiring sufficient inspectors to enforce the legislation.

But the meat-packer lobby succeeded in whittling down and stalling the Beveridge draft. With Congress set to adjourn shortly, for a while it appeared that no action would take place.

The Meat Inspection Act that emerged two years later allowed for a day and evening inspection system, banned non-inspected meats from interstate commerce, gave the agricultural secretary the authority to set sanitary standards, and provided ample funding for enforcement. But it contained no provisions for dating meat labels, and still left the courts as the final judge of the agricultural secretary’s rulings.

Why the slowness?                                             

The best answer, according to William Greider in Who Will Tell the People: The Betrayal of American Democracy (1992) is “democracy, at its core, is plodding work and requires a heroic sense of patience.” 

 The Constitution intentionally divided power among three branches of government without party affiliation. The unplanned rise of political parties in the late 18th century meant the Founders’ original hope – that government officials would act impartially based on the merits of an issue – did not materialize.

The result has been that when the parties deeply disagree, and neither holds a majority in both houses of Congress, not only is it difficult for a president to govern, but there’s not much that can be done about it. There’s little chance, for instance, that President Obama can persuade his political opponents to support policies on high profile matters when they plan to run for election or re-election as opponents of those very same policies, i.e., Obamacare. The chief executive can do much better with those already predisposed to support him, and even then often must bring them across the finish line by persuasion, bribery, and arm twisting.

The same dynamic explains why campaign promises stated as broad generalities cannot be kept.  They have to go through a rigorous and partisan legislative process before becoming a law.

Partisanship plays a critical role as well in determining what bills will make it to the floor, whether they will be endlessly modified or run into a filibuster in the Senate that requires a two-thirds vote to override.

Filibusters, originally intended as a protection of free speech and a guard against majorities steam-rolling minorities, permit a single Senator to hold the floor, speaking on any topic he or she chooses, until debate is brought to a close by at least 60 out of 100 Senators.  Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina set the individual record of 24 hours and 18 minutes in his attempt to stop the 1957 Civil Rights Bill.  He began with readings of each state’s election laws, in alphabetical order, moved on through a variety of other documents, including the Declaration of Independence, George Washington’s Farewell Address, and his own grandmother’s biscuit recipe. 

In addition to the filibuster option, today a single Senator can place a “hold” on legislation or nominations being considered by notifying the leadership in writing of his or her objection.  This is often done secretly and, in effect, can draw out the process indefinitely.  This maneuver has been used as a means of extracting executive concessions for the Senator’s home state.

New funding for desirable but expensive programs also runs up against many speed bumps, most formidably a federal budget in which 64% goes toward defense, Social Security, and major health programs.   Safety-net programs like food stamps and low-income housing assistance and interest on the national debt take another 9% each, leaving 18 % for funding everything else, old and new, including a wide variety of public services from scientific research to benefits for veterans. Pork-barrel projects – like the notorious bridge to nowhere in Alaska — though of benefit to local constituents,  frequently come at the expense of national interests.  They bypass normal congressional appropriations and competitive processes to claim chunks of what’s left.  Finding money to pay for large, worthwhile endeavors, even when good will exists, is a slow, belabored process.

The political clout of interest groups – chambers of commerce, unions, industry lobbies – also plays a considerable part in time-consuming modifications of an original bill. Take for example the 1990 Senate debate over clean-air legislation. Chapters of Big Brother and Big Sister wrote and lobbied their Senators, as did the Georgia Baptist Convention, the Easter Seal Society of South Dakota, and the Delaware Paralyzed Veteran’s Association, in opposition to a pending amendment that would force the auto industry to improve the fuel efficiency of its cars and reduce their carbon foot print. (This amendment to the Clean Air Act of 1963 did pass.) It takes time to process and respond to concerned constituencies like these.

In light of the above pulls, tugs, and drags on the legislative process, let’s set aside the image of “Mr. Bill” skipping merrily through Congress on his way to be signed into law by the president. He has had a tough journey from the get-go since being introduced by a Congressional member, his sponsor.  He had to be read in the chamber, and reported on to the appropriate committee for debates, followed by changes or amendments. Then if not tabled because he was deemed unwise or unnecessary, it’s back to a subcommittee for more intense study before going back to the House for a vote.

Time delays operate even in the best case scenario of one party holding both the presidency and an overwhelming majority in Congress. The Democratic Party Platform in the 1932 election pledged to pass a bill providing for unemployment and old age insurance.  Yet it was not until two years later, despite the landslide victory, that two bills made it to Congress from the Committee on Economic Security appointed by FDR and headed by Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins.  This was probably because Roosevelt wanted to seize ownership of these issues for himself and make them into a 1936 campaign issue.  Hence, he appointed a presidential commission, the Committee on Economic Security, to draft new legislation featuring a federally run cradle-to-grave welfare system for all Americans, and including a national system of health care that complicated the negotiations.

Finally, the president tempered his vision for fiscal reasons (and questions of constitutionality), and backed a plan that would be financed by a regressive tax on the workers themselves, and would pay benefits in proportion to previous earnings.  All of this took time, much of it spent in frequent and belabored discussions about which groups to include and exclude from old-age coverage.   The Social Security Act became law in 1935, the first payroll deductions waited until 1937, and the first distributions – a monthly check for $41.30 — were disbursed in 1940, approximately eight years after that landslide victory and its apparent mandate.

When a single party has a smaller majority in Congress, or the president and congressional majority come from opposing parties, or different parties control the House and Senate, or there is significant disagreement even among members of the same party, legislation is not only slow, it’s more limited in scope.  A recent case in point is the Obama Health Care Plan, which passed in March, 2010, after a bitter and lengthy fight. First the president had to win over “Blue Dog” Democrats, fiscal conservatives who objected to the high cost and wanted reassurance no federal monies would find their way into abortion-providing clinics. Liberal Democrats were angry about the lack of an option to purchase government insurance policies. Republicans were hostile to all parts of the plan because of the price, and also as social policy, especially the part that called for every American to buy insurance and penalties for those who didn’t. 

Yet, as a result of frequent negotiations, and modifications sufficient to win over Democratic doubters, the President managed to eke out a narrow victory. The margin in the House was 219-212, with not a single Republican voting “yes.” In the Senate, enough Republicans crossed over to avoid a filibuster and allow the bill to reach a vote and pass.

Ah, but once a bill is passed, it can later be challenged – all the way up to the Supreme Court.  S-l-o-w-l-y.  At this writing, the present Supreme Court is currently deliberating the constitutionality of the entire bill, and its individual parts.

When times appear desperate, quicker legislation becomes possible. During the Great Depression, FDR initially received carte blanche to halt all bank operations, suspend anti-trust laws, and assist the 25% unemployed by setting up relief and work creation programs via the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, Works Progress Administration, and the Civilian Conservation Corps. The threat of an economic collapse in 2008 led a very divided Congress to approve quickly $800 billion in bailout money to save big banks and other financial giants from going under. This same gridlocked Congress later agreed, however reluctantly, on budget cuts to keep the government from shutting down.

Any of the factors mentioned above, singly and in combination, can affect the speed at which change happens.  The maddeningly slow pace makes us wonder:  Do our elected leaders not hear us?  They do, but they listen most carefully when failing to listen threatens to cost them their jobs.  Getting reelected is their default position, justified by the fact that they can’t accomplish anything at all if they’re not there. 

They also listen because they care, and, as individuals, they often agree.  But they must still take what they hear, care about, and agree with through a tortoise-paced process.  That’s democracy’s weakness and also its strength.  Let the analogy be duly noted:  In the fable of The Tortoise and the Hare, slow and steady wins the race. The upside of the tortuous process whereby a bill becomes law is that it enhances political stability. All constituencies (not equally) have a chance to speak their piece; the losing ones are not sent to prison or exiled abroad, and the system is coup proof.

Though time-lapse photography may be needed to capture it, the American political landscape is in a constant state of change.  As a wise mother once advised her daughter, “Boyfriends are like buses.  If you don’t catch one, there’ll be another along in ten minutes.”  Pretty much the same goes for legislation, but substitute the voting booth for the bus stop.  In either case, to have any hope of getting what we want, we need to show up, stand up, and be patient.

SOME SOURCES AND RESOURCES

Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks:  How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism (2012)

David Mayhew, Partisan Balance:  Why Political Parties Don’t Kill the U.S. Political System (2011)

QUESTIONS?  COMMENTS?

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6 Comments

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  1. Ben Easher / Jun 1 2012 4:28 am

    Note that much of “Obamacare” is derived from Republican ideas: Lincoln Chaffee’s alternative to Bill Clinton’s health-care proposal, Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts plan, the Heritage Foundation’s support of mandates instead of single-payer. Now that a Democrat is advancing these concepts (see also Cap and Trade), Republicans oppose it in lockstep. It wasn’t always this way: Richard Nixon vetoed the Clean Water Act, but Republicans joined Democrats in overriding him.

    • Harvey Asher / Jun 2 2012 12:21 am

      You are absolutely right, Ben. This is part of a larger pattern of refusing to compromise on any proposal Obama offers. The only objective is to prevent his getting a second term.

  2. MerCyn / Jun 3 2012 6:49 pm

    Great piece, Harvey. Do you think if Obama wins a second term it will be any easier for him to get anything done? He can’t run a third time! Do you think the Republicans will be as intransigent as they are now about their unwillingness to compromise?

    • Harvey Asher / Jun 4 2012 12:23 pm

      Thank you! Yes, they will be less intransigent proportional to how much he wins by and the results of the House and Senate contests. Our votes matter.

  3. Rich / Jun 5 2012 7:20 pm

    Hi Harvey: I especially liked the review of legislation prompted by Upton Sinclair’s book.

    Overall a very interesting and revealing discussion.

    • Harvey Asher / Jun 6 2012 5:17 pm

      Thanks for your kind comments, Rich.
      I held back on the goriest details of that particular situation!

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