This is the day.
This is the moment that some clever historian — not the first to consider this sweep of time, but rather someone turning over the leaves looking for a more subtle causation — will draw a slash on the timeline of history and write: Here began the fall of the American republic.
The turmoil engendered by the election of a conservative Republican to Ted Kennedy’s seat doesn’t signal some mythical turning of the tide or a repudiation of an agenda. It highlights how very broken is the American system of government, most especially its Senate. The Republicans have taken Ted Kennedy’s seat and, in so doing, have won themselves — as one pundit put it — a majority of 41 to 59. The actual numerical shift in power is virtually infinitesimal. As a different commentator noted, this leaves the Democrats a mere one seat better off than they were a year ago, before they even started tackling health care. Yet the Dems seemed poised, nay, eager to abandon their signature issue on the very cusp of passage. They shouldn’t but that’s fodder for a different post. Here I want to ponder the structural implications.
The Republican victory and, moreso, the Democratic capitulation, will enshrine the supremacy of the fillibuster. Ignoring the clear historical record, the DC elites, the media, and eventually, the public will come to see a 60 seat supermajority as required for the Senate to conduct any business at all. An institution that already moves like molasses will instead freeze up entirely. Nominally this would paralyze the entire Federal government: Laws unwritten; budgets unpassed; appointed positions (including judgeships) unfilled. But of course the Federal government is too big, too important, and too intricately woven into the daily life of the country to remain paralyzed. Concerns of economy and security, at the least, will demand action that cannot wait. How to resolve this tension?
Government by other means.
If the paralysis of the Senate renders inoperative the traditional mode of American government, then people of all stripes will find advantage in utilizing unconventional methods. If rote application of a rule of order stymies all movement, people will find others they can twist to get done what they feel must get done.
Expect more recess appointments. Expect more recesses to allow for recess appointments. Power will devolve to the bureaucracy even more, which in turn will accelerate the accumulation of power to the Presidency. Since national defense is basically the only area of government enjoying popular respect — and since the military is least encumbered by the trappings of deliberative oversight — you can be sure that the President and the country will turn more and more to the military to “get things done”.
Republics end in two ways: They prove too weak to resist other powers and are conquered from without. Or they prove too weak to govern and are conquered from within. When time-hallowed unwritten understandings are flouted for short-term political gain; when fundamental governing principles are abandoned mid-game for fleeting political advantage; when every loophole is exploited just to gain the upper hand in the TV news cycle; when the habits of communal self-government are allowed to wither … then the final crisis is incipient.