Like many, I have serious reservations about elements of the debt deal. But from a standpoint concerned only with the legislative process, the debate in Washington has not been “business as usual.” In recent months we have witnessed two primary, parallel attempts at compromise: The “Gang of 6” in the Senate, and the Obama-Boehner-Cantor talks at The White House. To me, the failure of the “Gang,” and the ultimate success of the White House talks, is a sign that our government is undergoing a significant shift in the way it legislates.
Change in the legislative paradigm is not a radical event – it has been the norm in our Congress’ history. Compromise, specifically over “perceived truths,” as Jeffrey Goldfarb notes, is the heart of the legislative process. Among the oldest approaches to compromise was John C. Calhoun’s “doctrine of the concurrent majority,” where the goal of legislation was to accommodate all ideas. During the “Golden Age,” Henry Clay championed the idea that “all legislation…is founded upon the principle of mutual concession.” Now, Obama’s inability to strike a “Grand Bargain” should not be seen as an unqualified failure; grand bargains can only be made within a legislative framework where both sides are willing to sacrifice equally, a point I will return to shortly.
Turning to the present day, we find two curious episodes in the Senate. First, we have an attempt by the Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell to cede portions of the Senate’s power to the Democratic President. The Senate has always fiercely defended its own sovereignty with a ferocity that can only equal debates over world-shattering policy changes. William S. White, perhaps the most eminent scholar on Senate history, noted that it is “harder to change a [standing] rule than to vote to take a country to war.” For McConnell to suggest that the Democratic president takes the reigns is a clear act of desperation, a sign that the existing framework of compromise familiar to McConnell no longer applies.
Second, we have the “Gang of 6.” The Gang . . .