In a speech in early December, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) repeated the charge that the Republicans have become "the party of No." Rather than working to improve the legislation put forward by Democrats, he said, the Republican strategy has been to do their best to shut down the legislature, with the idea of denying the Democrats anything they might claim as a victory before the next election. It's a strategy that Newt Gingrich pioneered with huge success during the Clinton administration. The problem, of course, is that two can play that game. And if they do, not much of consequence will ever get through Congress.
The most damning evidence of Republican obstructionism is a memo circulated by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH) calling on Republican senators to propose "an unlimited number of amendments—germane or non-germane—on any subject" an to insist that conference reports be read in their entirety to slow down the process. David Paul Kuhn is right to point out on Real Clear Politics that the Democrats used the same tactics when they were out of power, as Hoyer himself now concedes. It's easy, of course, for Hoyer to admit now that what he did before was wrong, but—hypocrite or not—his point deserves to be taken seriously.
The problem, as Hoyer acknowledges, is that there are powerful structural factors that reward minority-party obstructionism. The minority's most powerful tool, of course, is the filibuster, which allows just 41 Senators to block the passage of any bill or nomination. Rather than being used to ensure bills are adequately debated, filibusters are increasingly used to see that they never come to a straight majority vote at all. As political scientist Barbara Sinclair has found, in the 1960s just 8% of major bills faced filibusters, while 70% do now—with the last Congress setting a new record for obstructionism. So now a rare supermajority of the kind the Democrats have at the moment is required to accomplish much of anything at all. And even now a few Senators can hold the process hostage, taking the teeth out of every piece of legislation and extracting huge political concessions for themselves in the process.
Most of the time, of course, neither party has control—as the Democrats do now—of the presidency and both houses of Congress. And the Democratic Party has barely been able to govern, as Ezra Klein argues, even "when everything was stacked in its favor." Although the passage of a health care reform bill would be a huge accomplishment, it has gotten as far as it has only because a financial crisis and two unpopular wars handed the Democrats the largest majority either party has had in more than thirty years. And, as Klein points out, the bill doesn't really address the fundamental issue that health care costs need to be kept down or include any provision for a government run health care plan. Even so the Democrats weren't able to attract a single Republican vote, and had to extravagantly buy off Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) just to get the votes they needed.
In a sense, the inefficiency of a democratic system is one of its virtues. Authoritarian regimes are good at pushing through massive public works programs and making the trains run on time. But they are equally good at putting people into gulags. The virtue of democracy—what makes it, as Winston Churchill said, the worst form of government except for all the others—is its responsiveness to the will of people. A certain amount of ineffectiveness is a side-effect of the democratic process, and a necessary feature of any system that protects the rights of its citizens. But the current gridlock suggests that the system is broken, that it is too easy for minority interests to stall valuable legislation indefinitely.. And with a debt crisis looming, a financial system badly in need of reform, and the specter of climate change on the horizon, Congress is going to have figure out how to take meaningful action soon.