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Blame Congress

If you’re disappointed in how little the laws have changed, be disappointed in Congress

By Dylan R. Matthews

Like many of those interviewed in Victoria A. Baena’s excellent Fifteen Minutes piece on students’ disappointment with the Obama administration, I remember Election Day, 2008 as one of unusual euphoria. I was at the College Democrats’ party in Currier when I heard that Ohio had been called for Obama, clinching the election, and promptly started celebrating like I’d never celebrated before.

I tried unsuccessfully to remember my mother’s cell phone number and ended up screaming “WE ELECTED OBAMA” to some poor Maine woman. I ran to Winthrop to meet up with old intern friends from Obama’s primary campaign, amazed that we had even gotten to the general election, let alone won it. I may have had a little bit to drink. It was a good time.

So I understand, in light of the still-stagnant economy and the deficit brinkmanship of the last year, why people are disappointed. Obama’s victory was emotionally meaningful, and, given the huge expectations that win set, discontent is inevitable. But the right takeaway, I think, is not that Obama is a failure, but that that major change is really hard, especially in America, especially for the president, and especially now.

Suppose that the United States had a parliamentary system of the kind in place in most of the developed world. Let’s suppose that the U.S. had no president or Senate, that the speaker of the House operated as a de facto prime minister, and that Obama had been swept into that office. Given that the House, under Speaker Nancy Pelosi, passed cap-and-trade legislation to fight global warming and a health care bill with a public option, it’s fair to say that Speaker Obama would have gotten that done as well.

He also likely could have passed initiatives that Pelosi didn’t take up, because she assumed the Senate would just kill them. Perhaps he would have passed more stimulus spending, perhaps campaign finance reform. He would have done what all parliamentary leaders with majorities do: Use the power voters gave him to pass his whole agenda.

But instead of a parliament, the U.S. has a system that is designed to prevent government policy from fully reflecting the public will. The Founding Fathers, as we all learned in high school civics, were deathly afraid of actual democracy, and put plenty of veto points (the president, the Senate, the Supreme Court, etc.) in the Constitution so as to prevent it. That Obama could not have pushed through his whole agenda, like leaders of other developed democracies can, is not his fault. It’s James Madison’s.

Some might find this explanation unsatisfying. Didn’t Franklin D. Roosevelt, Class of 1904, and Lyndon B. Johnson pass major legislation under these same constraints? Yes, but they had two other things going for them. For one thing, their Congressional majorities were enormous compared to Obama’s. In 1935, when Roosevelt signed Social Security into law, there were 72 Democrats in the Senate. In 1965, when Johnson signed the bill creating Medicare, there were 68 Senate Democrats. Obama, by contrast, had at most 60 Senate Democrats to work with, and only 59 by the time health care reform passed.

What’s more, Obama has had to deal with a de facto 60-vote supermajority requirement that only emerged in the past few years. Roosevelt and Johnson had to deal with a higher bar for breaking filibusters (67 votes instead of 60), but it was only with Mitch McConnell’s emergence as Senate Minority Leader in 2007 that the procedure began to be used routinely to routinely legislation, and before 1970 it was only really used to delay civil rights legislation. Indeed, when Johnson was whipping votes for Medicare, his legislative strategists did not even consider the possibility that the bill would be filibustered. It was just too absurd an idea.

If you’re going to be disappointed with someone, then, be disappointed with the Republicans and moderate Democrats in Congress who derailed Obama’s agenda. Talia B. Lavin ’12, one of those disappointed students quoted in Baena’s article, regrets that Obama has not done more to curtail “continual expansion of the power of the presidency.”

But on domestic policy, the rise of the filibuster has actually lead to an expansion of Congress’ power and diminishing of the president’s. And with great power, as Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben reminds us, comes great responsibility. Mitch McConnell may not be “one of us,” but he is a person with moral agency. Liberals should start treating him like one. We can argue for days over what Obama could have done differently, but there’s no question that there was plenty that Congress could have done differently. To respond to the policy failures McConnell and his allies creates by blaming Obama is to enable Republicans’, and Congress’s, effort to duck responsibility for their actions.

Dylan R. Matthews ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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