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Going Off the Grid(lock) | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Going Off the Grid(lock)


John Boehner accompanied by Mitch McConnell and other House and Senate Republicans. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

My new Think Again column is “Have Progressives Abandoned Economic Liberalism?

Alter-reviews:
Not much live music at the beach. I have been watching the new Blu-ray of “Help” which is the Beatles at their most personally charming, and the music sure hits a sweet spot. It’s all pretty wonderful and it’s hard to imagine anyone save my daughter who could find it resistable without also being a terrible person. Anyway the Blu-ray pairs the digitally restored film and 5.1 soundtrack with an hour of extra features, including a 30-minute documentary about the making of the film, memories of the cast and crew, an in-depth look at the restoration process, an outtake scene, and original theatrical trailers and radio spots. An introduction by the film's director, Richard Lester, and an appreciation by Martin Scorsese are included in the Blu-ray's booklet. The performances include: 'Help!,' 'You're Going To Lose That Girl,' 'You've Got To Hide Your Love Away,' 'Ticket To Ride,' 'I Need You,' 'The Night Before,' and 'Another Girl.'

I’d also like to give a decidedly ambivalent but nevertheless admiring shout-out to a new collection, For the Republic: Political Essays by George Scialabba. I picked up his previous collection on the basis of myriad recommendations from people whose opinions I tend to share, but I had to put it down right smack at the table of contents when I saw that the first essay was called something like “Alexander Cockburn and Noam Chomsky are Totally Awesome.” Might as well try and sell me on Bush and Cheney. This one does something similar with Ralph Nader, but somehow I got past it—thanks, I suppose to the fact that George, whom I’ve never met sent me the book himself and wrote a nice note—and I find that, as hard as it is to believe, I actually find myself in accord with much of it, and almost always impressed by the vivacity and originality of the prose, despite my deep disagreements with some of its judgments. Anyway it could use, and deserves, some attention, so check it out.

I also want to recommend the audio version of “Bad Monkey” read by Arte Johnson, which is first rate Carl Hiassen and is appropriately respectful of Steve Earle and Bruce bootlegs. And speaking of “bad,” also Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas by Eric Fischl, which is a nice tour of the contemporary art business and what it does to people. Oh and I liked Rachel Kushner’s Flamethrowers, but it does not even begin to be talked about as a “great American novel.” It is a “good” American novel, though I much preferred Francesca Segal’s The Innocents (which is almost great) and Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins which is not quite as almost-great as The Innocents, but well-worth everyone’s time. For the most recent “great” American novels, I’m sorry but I’m sticking with the Jonathans: both Freedom and The Corrections by Franzen and Fortress of Solitude by Lethem. 

Now here, (finally) is Reed:

Going Off the Grid(lock)
by Reed Richardson

Responsible governance is a surprisingly fragile thing. It requires members of Congress act on good faith. It likewise needs them to have a shared investment in not just representing constituents, but in sustaining the relevance of the institution. And to run smoothly, it depends upon a certain amount of procedural shortcuts—voice votes, unanimous consent, motions to recommit—to lubricate the gears of legislating. Yes, there will be plenty of differences of opinion over what should be done. But what Congress can’t abide is when every single policy debate breaks down because too many of its ostensible lawmakers no longer feel compelled to, well, make laws.

Tragically, our nation has now arrived at a point where Congress simply no longer functions. The 112th Congress that ended last year was notable for its both feeble and futile legislative output. Yet our current Congress is poised to sink even lower into the depths of dysfunction—after six months, it has passed only 15 laws, a record low number for this point in the term. And it’s not like the public hasn’t noticed, last month a Gallup poll recorded its lowest-ever approval rating for Congress, a mere 10%.

Unfortunately, it’s not just Congress that’s broken, the press’ coverage of Congress is too. At the root of this problem sits one single word that the media instinctively reaches for to explain why our representatives repeatedly shirk their duties: gridlock. Over and over again, contrived committee hearings, failed floor votes, and infuriating filibusters of presidential nominees get painted over by the media with this same broad brush. This past Monday, for example, the New York Times rolled out a broad state-of-play piece on Congressional failure that established gridlock right in the headline and took care to sing the same old “both sides do it” song. Two days later, the same reporter trotted out another Beltway golden oldie—Democrats in disarray—to explain how a Democratic majority failed to overcome a Republican filibuster and pass a student loan interest rate fix in the Senate.

This gridlock meme is symptomatic of the same false equivalency that plagues too much of the Beltway media, however. Like the favorite tactic of using dueling soundbites, the pronouncement of Congressional gridlock is an overly simplistic, pox-on-both-houses throwaway line. It implies equal forces in opposition, both similarly intransigent, both correspondingly unwilling to compromise. That kind of lazy reporting simply does not reflect reality, though. The president and Democrats regularly make entreaties on legislative policy only to be met with calls for even more concessions if not outright scorn. The battle in Congress is no longer between two parties trying to steer the country in different directions, as the press like to portray it. It’s now about one party keeping its hands on the wheel while trying to keep the other party from jumping out of the car.

It is no coincidence that Congress’ rapid, unprecedented descent into legislative limbo began two-and-a-half years ago, with the arrival of dozens of hard-right, Tea Party-based Republicans to Capitol Hill. But don’t just take my word for it, two of the most respected Congressional scholars in Washington have said the very same thing—“The Republicans are the problem.” Though this new extremist caucus of conservatives makes up but a minority in Congress, it has effectively taken control of the body, by abandoning nearly every procedural norm that enables Congress to function. Denuded of any actionable power, the GOP majority in the House has turned that chamber into a legislative wormhole, into which Senate bills disappear never to be seen again and from which an unending stream of bills appear as if ripped from a parallel universe. Sometimes it even seems like the House is stuck in a time loop.

The establishment press, however, has all too readily accepted this behavior as the new normal. Rather than, say, juxtapose the statistics about Congress’s historic level of inaction next to every compromise shot down by Republicans in the House, the media maintains a startlingly small-bore perspective. Each time Congress fails to act, the press treats it as sui generis, leaving the public with little understanding of the backstory or the larger forces that stopped it. And rather than adding broader context by constantly referring to the breathtakingly brazen rate of filibusters in the Senate, the media (when it bothers to even use the term “filibuster”) shifts the blame to the president for nominating candidates that don’t pass muster with every single crackpot GOP senator. Sometimes the media even enables the obstruction, like when it hyperbolically claims Senate Majority Leader Reid’s moderate attempt at curbing filibuster abuse is tantamount to: “threatening to kill a part of the thing he loves most in the world.”

This abdication by Congress of its duties has, in effect, put the onus of legislating on the other two branches. And they have grown increasingly comfortable in their roles. Ironically, that means Republicans hellbent on stopping Obama’s agenda have convinced the president to undertake a broad exercise of executive actions on everything from gun control to climate change to healthcare. More to the GOP’s liking, the Supreme Court has taken up Congress’s slack as well, revising numerous federal laws to suit the conservative Roberts Court’s pro-business agenda. But only when a high-profile example can’t be ignored—like the fact no one expects Congress to pass a new preclearance map for Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act—does this spillover effect get any attention by the press. But it should, a lot. For, whether you support or oppose the specific policies involved in these various end runs around Congress, it’s not how our democracy is supposed to work.

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The lesson to Republicans in Congress intent on obstruction couldn’t be clearer, though. There will be little price to pay in press scrutiny or public opprobrium for their intentional inaction. So why not remain beholden to the hidebound agenda of an energized rump of Republican primary voters? And why not take a cue from a few, deep-pocketed donors, like Charles Koch, who just this week granted a rare press interview in which he broadcast a not-so-subtle message to like-minded legislative partners in Congress: “Gridlock is bad if there are positive solutions…but if the proposals are to take us in a worse direction, then gridlock is good.”

To be fair, a few prominent voices in the political press who cover Congress regularly aren’t afraid to call out this sabotaging of governance for what it is. Greg Sargent, at The Washington Post, and New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, are standouts here. But even among the more conventional “objective” media pundits, a stirring is underway. When NBC News’s Chuck Todd starts pointing out the anti-democratic tendencies behind the Republican Party’s broad-based campaign to slow and/or stop new laws and thoroughly undermine existing ones, a small measure of optimism is in order. (Perhaps a very small measure, since just three months ago, Todd implied presidential fundraising could be fueling the GOP’s obstructionism.)

Still, a cynic might argue that if the media never does come around to noticing what’s really going on, that could prove to be an advantage for Democrats the next time they’re in the minority. That, however, would require being both ridiculously gullible and forgetful, as the press’s dismissive and callous treatment of the left during the eight years of the Bush 43 presidency ably demonstrated. But more important than what the Democratic Party might or might not one day gain is what our democracy is already losing today. Every time the public must watch Congress prove itself incapable of addressing their very real problems, faith in our democracy suffers. And when the media blithely indicts everyone in Congress equally for these failures, it only exacerbates the public’s feeling of betrayal, since it suggests government itself is inherently flawed. Sure, there are a lot of obstacles in the way of improving our federal legislature’s responsiveness to the people. But the solution is so simple, it’s a bit of a tautology. In the end, changing Congress will require changing Congress, whether that’s instituting fairer procedural rules in the Senate or voting out flagrantly obstructionist members in the House. But until an obsessively plugged-in Washington press corps is willing to take a step back and go off the gridlock narrative, any changes for the better—in Congress and in our country—will be hard to come by.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

The Mail
Hi Mr Richardson -

I just read your piece on Samuel Alito [“Splenetic Justice”] with which I couldn't agree more.

Strangely, you refer twice to Clarence Thomas's "advanced" age. He's been on the bench for 22 years so he seems ancient but he is actually only 65, or two (really) years older than Alito.

Best regards,
Jack Johnson

Reed replies: Fair point. Perhaps a bit of wishful thinking on my part. A better argument would have been to note Thomas’s 15-year advantage in SCOTUS tenure vs. Alito, and that because the former seems to barely tolerate oral arguments, he may be much more inclined to retire sooner than later.

Dear Mr. Richardson,

I am in full accord with you about Alito, but, as a lawyer, I will point out some errors in your article.

1. Alito, as you say, is 63; Clarence Thomas is 65. Thus, Thomas is not of “advanced age” and could remain on the bench longer than Alito, contrary to what you say in your final paragraph. Bush appointed him when he was 43.

2. You quote Alito as having written, “Windsor and the United States thus ask us to rule that the presence of two members of the opposite sex is as rationally related to marriage as white skin is to voting or a Y-chromosome is to the ability to administer an estate.”  You comment, “Suggesting same-sex partners are due the same marriage rights as opposite sex ones is tantamount to endorsing racist Jim Crow laws or sexist legal traditions, he seems to be arguing.” No. He is arguing that limiting marriage to members of the opposite sex is more rational than is limiting voting to whites or allowing only men to administer estates. He would have been clearer if he’d written that Windsor was arguing that being of the opposite sex is as rationally unrelated to marriage as white skin is to voting.

3. You quote Alito as having written, “At least as it [the consent-based view of marriage] applies to heterosexual couples, this view of marriage now plays a very prominent role in the popular understanding of the institution.” You comment, “Is Alito really not sure that gay people form loving bonds in the same way and for the same reasons as straight people?” That is not what Alito is saying. He is noting that the consent-based view, in contrast to the traditional view of marriage as based on procreation, has become popular as applied to heterosexual couples. He is not expressing his own opinion of it. He adds that proponents of same-sex marriage argue that there is no basis to apply the consent-based view solely to heterosexual couples. Alito does not express his opinion of that either. He implies, though, that, if it is true that the consent-based view includes same-sex marriage, then, for the Court to allow same-sex marriage would require it to choose the consent-based view of marriage. This is because the traditional view of marriage, being based on procreation, does not allow same-sex marriage. But, Alito argues, the Constitution does not favor the consent-based view or the traditional view, and the Court, therefore, should not choose between them. That matter is left to legislatures. In saying that, Alito is saying that he believes that the Constitution does not require the states to allow same-sex marriage. That question was not before the Court in the DOMA case, but it likely will be in the future, and he has admitted that he has already made up his mind. (Not that such honesty is so awful. I think that it is ludicrous when Supreme Court nominees say that they can express no opinion of any issue that may come before the Court. Theoretically, they, or Alito in this case, could change their minds about such issues.)

4. You quote Alito as having written, “All that §3 does is to define a class of persons to whom federal law extends certain special benefits and upon whom federal law imposes certain special burdens.” You comment, “So, Congress decided gay people have to deal with some “special burdens” when it comes to the state sanctioning their marriage.” No. Alito is saying that §3 recognizes only opposite-sex marriages. In doing so, it gives opposite-sex couples certain benefits and certain burdens. Alito is being disingenuous, because, obviously, DOMA was intended to deny same-sex couples the benefits of marriage, not the burdens of it.  But, if marriage has any legal burdens, then same-sex couples are spared them. I’m not sure if it has any legal burdens, but there may be some respects in which the tax code favors single people; I don’t know (I’m not a tax lawyer).

Sincerely,
Henry Cohen

Reed replies: Henry, thanks for the helpful context, though a lot of my “errors” seem to be interpretative distinctions without a difference. But then I guess that’s what the law is all about.

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