"Congress is broken," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Thursday before holding a party-line vote that disposed of rules that have guided and protected the chamber since 1789. If Congress wasn't broken before, it certainly is now.... If it was possible to make things even worse in Washington, Reid just did it.
In Monty Python's "Life of Brian," one my favorite moments is the scene in which a mob is preparing to stone Matthias to death for blasphemy. Matthias, under guard and in chains, is poised to be executed when he declares, "I don't think it ought to be blasphemy, just saying, 'Jehovah.'"
The official overseeing the execution, outraged, says, "You're only making it worse for yourself!" To which Matthias replied, "Making it 'worse'? How could it be worse?"
He had a point. Matthias' fate had been sealed and he wasn't going to be freed anyway. Whether or not he said "Jehovah" again would not affect the outcome of the proceedings.
I thought of this scene this morning reading the hand-wringing from the Beltway media, appalled that Senate Democrats would dare make things "worse" by restoring majority-rule confirmation for judicial and executive-branch nominees -- the way the institution used to work for about two centuries.
Dana Milbank led the charge.
"Making it 'worse'? How could it be worse?"
Since radicalized Republicans claimed the House majority in 2011 and began reflexively opposing all Democratic measures in the Senate in 2009, Congress has exactly zero major legislative accomplishments. Literally, none. We've seen a government shutdown and two debt-ceiling crises, but bills haven't, you know, become law.
The prospect of pushing this total below zero seems unlikely.
Specifically in the Senate, the Republican minority pushed obstructionist tactics to levels never before seen in the United States, launching unprecedented filibusters against cabinet nominees and even imposing the first-ever blockade against all nominees to the D.C. Circuit -- regardless of the nominees' qualifications.
What, exactly, would the hand-writing critics have Senate Democrats do? Ask Republicans nicely to be more responsible? (For the record, Dems did try this.) The American system of government cannot be put on hold, indefinitely, because radicalized congressional Republicans no longer believe elections have consequences.
Milbank also complains that Democrats have now turned the Senate into the House, "which functions not at all." This, too, strikes me as badly mistaken. For one thing, passing bills in the House is pretty easy -- they're generally not good bills, unless GOP leaders are willing to waive the manufactured "Hastert Rule," but assembling 218 votes for bills in the lower chamber isn't tough. Were it not for the extremist factions of the House majority, the chamber would "function" just fine.
But even putting that aside, filibusters are not what makes the Senate distinct from the lower chamber. Indeed, the Senate was unique before filibusters even existed for reasons that have been well documented by political scientists for generations -- its members serve longer terms and feel more insulated to prevailing winds; senators represent states instead of districts; all states are on equal footing regardless of population, etc. To think that up-or-down votes on judges and cabinet members will make the Senate the House is to overlook everything meaningful that makes the Senate special.
In fairness, Milbank's column acknowledges Republican "abuse," and I'm glad. But he and other critics of Senate Democrats have offered nothing constructive on what the majority party was expected to do in the face of unprecedented abuses.
Democrats, borrowing an idea Republicans themselves came up with, have now returned the Senate process to the way it used to be before the abuses spun out of control. This makes the Senate "worse"? How?
It amazes me that anyone watching Capitol Hill could fail to recognize that Republicans left Democrats with no other choice. Non-partisan scholar Norm Ornstein said of GOP tactics, "This was an in-your-face, go-ahead-I-dare-you equivalent of a bully saying, 'Go ahead and hit me,' When the other kid says, 'No,' you spit in his face, kick him in the groin and force him to go ahead and do it."
Jamelle Bouie added, "[Y]ou can't start a fight and then whine when the other side decides to finish it."
So, yes, Republicans' feelings are hurt now that Democrats responded to obstructionist tactics so severe, they have no precedent in the American tradition. And yes, partisan acrimony will linger. The likelihood of meaningful governing taking place in the near future is poor.
But if anyone can explain how this is different from how we'd describe Capitol Hill last week, I'm eager to hear it.