Friday, October 14, 2005

Really Off Center

From Christopher Hayes' review of Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson:

The second half of Off Center describes in detail how the Republican Machine works, how it rewards friends and punishes enemies, and how it has neutered or annihilated the moderates in its midst. Broken up into clear subsections with apt coinages like backlash insurance, the ways party leaders protect legislators from constituent disgust with the partys radical direction, Hacker and Pierson lay out in sober detail the various ruses the New Power Brokers employ: robbing committee chairs of their independence by instituting term limits, using the House Rules Committee (which has nine Republicans and four Democrats) to quietly kill threatening amendments, utilizing obscure administrative rules to institute broad policy changes, holding floor votes open while arms are twisted to pass legislation, shutting Democrats out of conference committees where corporate pork can be larded onto already passed legislation away from the minority partys prying eyes, tightly coordinating different factions of the right, and, as Nicholas Confessore first reported in these pages, bullying lobbying firms into hiring only Republicans.


As lurid as the details are, one cant help but ask: Why didnt previous majorities do this sort of thing? Tip O'Neill was a smart guy. Why didnt he provide his members with backlash insurance, or change the Ethics Committee rules so that the majority party could single handedly stop an investigation? While Off Center never explicitly addresses this question, the implicit answer is a simple as it is disturbing. Much of what kept prior governing coalitions in check were informal, generally agreed-upon norms rather than black letter law or immutable rules. Consider that for years state legislatures have, as a matter of custom, redistricted congressional districts only every 10 years, following new census data. There was nothing stopping a majority party from engineering a mid decade redistricting for its own partisan advantage other than a generalized sense it would be cheating to do so. Such considerations mean little to Tom DeLay and Karl Rove.

This seems about right. But consider Democratic threats to filibuster ideologically radical judges. Republicans cried using the filibuster in this way was abusing this time-honored instrument. With the exception of the Republican-led filibuster of Abe Fortas in the 1960's, maybe they were right (although during the Clinton Administration many nominees never even got to committee). And ultimately, Republican counter-threats to scuttle the filibuster intimidated Democrats into compromising. So be it. But how come Republicans have not been made to pay for the Texas redistricting? How come Democrats haven't threatened (at least to my knowledge) to open up redistricting decisions in Democratic states? I think under the current circumstances, Democrats should consider all bets off. If the Miers nomination is withdrawn or defeated, and a more reactionary nominee is offered, Democrats should give no quarter. The Republicans have shown no concern for congressional or political norms. Or for recognizing the prerogatives of the minority party. Democrats should respond in kind. If Republicans threaten to filibuster nominees in a future Democratic Administration, Democrats should say they'll be happy to reopen redistricting cases in Democratic states. Until there is a substantive change in the Republican leadership, Democrats shouldn't feel obligated to play by rules that Republicans have long since abandoned.

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