Friday, February 29, 2008

Why Single-Party Democratic Government Makes Sense, At Least For Now

(Photo: CNN)

There's a school of thought that says voters should cross-vote the Presidential and Congressional elections -- ie, that when there's Democratic President there should be a Republican Congress and vice versa. In ordinary times that can make sense, because even a progressive like me believes that some degree of ideological tension -- collaborative in practice, but tension nonetheless -- can be a healthy brake on wild ideas. At least the power exerted by what the British call "the loyal opposition" can serve as a reality check on any majority's wilder flights of fancy, and also can represent the interests of the substantial minority of citizens who prefer the minority party, whichever one that is.

But we're living in an exceptional time that proves the rule. So much harm has been done by neo-"conservative" one-party Republican rule that we can't afford a government that moves slowly. We have a lot of exigent problems as a nation, running the gamut from Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan to unacceptable troop losses and institutional foot-dragging by the Iraqi "government" to a still-unrebuilt New Orleans to a looming recession (or worse) to snowballing foreclosures, including tremendously high levels in Texas, to global warming to our inability to muster allies in military actions to problems in Kosovo and on and on. Right now, we need a good government, that's willing to consider all good ideas but that then has the ability to act efficiently.

Put differently: there are a lot of fires right now. Our government is like a fire truck that must get around as quickly as possible if it wants to put them all out before they turn into a citywide conflagration. And intentionally hobbling our government right now is akin to disabling a couple of cylinders on the truck, so that it can't drive so quickly -- or having two drivers, each intent on putting out a different fire first. Won't work. One driver, fast truck, save the city.

Another way of hobbling the government -- one the Founders wanted in place most of the time, but also understood should be overridden at times like this -- is the filibuster in the Senate, which allows the minority (currently, Republicans) to block legislation that the majority wants unless the majority can must 60 votes to override it. The filibuster should be used sparingly, but since the Democrats regained the majority in the Senate, the Republicans have used it to stymie every serious Democratic initiative. If voters think it's being abused, then the solution is to reduce the minority party's numbers still further, to the point that in the rare case when the majority can muster all its members to vote together (not easy with Democrats!), the minority cannot block an important bill.

Here's a case in point:

Senate Republicans on Thursday blocked efforts to give bankruptcy courts more power to stave off home foreclosures, a move the chamber's Democratic leader called "a big mistake."

"The people on Wall Street are high-fiving. They just won again," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, said after the vote.

"The big banks just won again. The mortgage bankers won again. Oh, there are a few losers out there, like millions of consumers -- millions of people who are going into foreclosure or are about to go into foreclosure. They lost."

The banking industry and President Bush opposed the bill, which would have allowed bankruptcy judges to reduce a filer's mortgage debt to the home's current market value.

Bush's GOP allies filibustered the measure Thursday afternoon, invoking Senate rules to require 60 votes to cut off debate and bring it to the floor; Democrats came 12 votes short of that mark.

(Another article here.)

The concept of bankruptcy courts reducing the amount someone owes on their mortgage may seem unfair, but this tool (called a "cramdown") was part of bankruptcy law for decades, and it's not actually unfair: every bankruptcy wipes out some or all of a person's debt, and there's little reason to exclude mortgage debt from that principle. It's also not different from what happens in most cases anyway: if someone's house's value has decreased to the point that it's worth less than the mortgage, adjusting the mortgage downward only reflects reality (the lender's security is worth less than its loan; deal with it!), and it does no more harm to the lender than an owner's "short sale" (selling the house for less than is owed) or a lender's foreclosure sale (which, again, cashes the lender out for less money than it originally lent). Not to mention, of course, that the lender often has made a mistake, or worse, in lending more money than the borrower can afford or than the house is worth -- and in true capitalism, as distinguished from modern crony capitalism, bonehead moves are supposed to get penalized. Just ask Adam Smith. And bankruptcy judges didn't use the "cramdown" tool very often, anyway.

So reinstating a tool that bankruptcy courts used to have but sparingly used, that keeps families in their homes in downturns like these and converts lenders' bad loans into good ones again, that causes a little bleeding in order to prevent a fatal hemorrhage, would be a good thing. But the Republican Party, as always much more interested in Wall Street (big, transnational business) than it is in Main Street (small and medium business) or Elm Street (people themselves), blocked it, and Bush threatened to veto it even if it passed.

So this is not a time to "cross vote." It's time to elect a President and representatives we trust and then give them the power to solve problems, like the foreclosure crisis. In this election, that means:

(a) Electing more Democrats to Congress, especially the Senate, and
(b) Electing as President not just a Democrat, but a Democrat who is both willing to break from Establishment thinking and can inspire the herd of cats that is the Democratic Congress into pulling together on important issues like this.

Then our government will be able to solve those problems that only government can solve. And, for those worried about Democrats having too much power, if we don't like what a Democratic government does, we can start cutting it back in only two years, when 1/3 of the Senate and the entire House will be up for re-election.

After seven years of either Republican-only or gridlocked rule, isn't it reasonable to try a Progressive Democratic government for two years, and see how well they do for a change?


TheLankyRighthander said...

Perhaps you can explain the meaning of your blog's name. Vichy France was reviled for collaborating with the Germans and being hypocritical. Surely you are not aligning your blog with those kinds of values.


Anonymous said...

Lanky Right Hander: Great question. This blog's mission is stated in the title bar:

Patriotic Democrats, Doggedly Resisting the Vichys, DINOs, Blue Dogs, Triangulators and Accommodationists. And Still Dogging Joe Lieberman Until He's Festering in His Political Grave, of course.

I've occasionally thought that my blog was misleadingly titled -- something referring to Resistance Fighters is more apropos. But the term "Vichy Democrats" has become so popular in the two years since I started it that, in Google searches etc., this blog tends to pop up top, which of course makes me happy.

So you can interpret it as "those damn Vichy Dems" or "Exposing Vichy Dems" or something like that. My very first post, explaining the name and the connection to Vichy France can be found here.