In Obama’s Second Term, Forget Legislating and Learn to Love the Veto

I’m not sure who is arguing that we need 435 liberals in the House to get anything good done. Personally my goal is 218+ Democrats. No doubt that’s a heavy lift. There are only about 35 swing districts, and Democrats need to win 17 to take the majority. Because of the wildly successful round of Republican gerrymandering, Democrats need something like a 7% win in the popular vote to win a majority of the districts as they are currently drawn. This year Democrats won the national House popular vote by 1.12%. About 1.4 million more people voted for a House Democrat than voted for a House Republican, but Republicans kept a majority of seats anyway.

So I’m with Rich Wilkins on his point that liberals who want a House majority need to get used to working alongside the kind of right-wing Democrats who can win in more conservative districts:

Today’s GOP establishment is yester-year’s nutjobs, and these Congressmen breaking from them provide a glimmer, a small one that I’m sure will close next week, of hope that there can be agreements made in President Obama’s second term. We now know who we’re reasonably going to have any chance of ever speaking to, and who not. The idea that we’ll replace all the “moderate” Republicans is also not really going anywhere. When the Dents, and Leonard Lances of the world, are moved into more conservative leaning districts, if we beat them it will have to be with a moderate Democrat, which many in our party have grown to hate.

More importantly, this is political reality. We will never get 435 solid progressive votes. Never. You would like to have 218, and that would be great, but we don’t have that now, not even close, and we probably won’t this decade. Thanks to re-districting, if we want the House back, the activists on the left are going to have to kiss and make up with the concept of “Blue Dogs,” especially in districts that we don’t currently have. Six Republicans are in left-leaning districts, and we need 17 seats, so we’re going to have to cut our losses and accept some people who break with us 20%, maybe even 30% of the time to win. In the meanwhile, the only way to pass any meaningful legislation going forward during President Obama’s time in Washington is going to require a coalition of some portion of our 201 House members and these 85 Republicans. Otherwise we fail. This is the Congress we have, so yes, I do think we have to stop thinking of these guys as the devil.

Two points about this:

If you want to say we should run more conservative Democrats in marginal districts, I want to agree with that, but everybody needs to say what positions their dream Blue Dogs would take.

I have no problem with Democrats running to the right on issues where the Republican position is actually popular in the district. What I disagree with is the notion that rural and exurban voters want to be ruled by insurance and bank lobbyists, or are clamoring for Social Security cuts. Those are not the conservative positions that are popular in swing districts, and I see no reason for Democrats to think that nominating Social Security cutters or bank-friendly future lobbyists will help them win over Reagan Democrats. My view is that swing district voters are receptive to a populist economic message, and that Republicans have done a good job framing their agenda in populist terms, while Democrats have been very squeamish about that kind of messaging. Democrats crave the approval of DC chin-strokers and chafe at accusations of “class warfare,” while Republicans understand that they pay no electoral penalty for DC disapproval of crude populist framing.

Second, I don’t agree that a successful second Obama term requires passing legislation through the House. The big agenda items in the second term involve vetoing bad ideas and protecting the policy wins from the first term. Obama needed to let all the Bush tax cuts expire and propose some different Obama tax cuts, he needs to implement the Affordable Care Act and veto Congressional efforts to change or defund it, he needs to veto changes to Dodd-Frank, etc. This is what the second term is all about. All the things happening automatically over the next 4 years advantage Obama. He just needs to sit back, make veto threats, and do all that he can through executive orders and various agency policy changes.

The reason liberals didn’t like the cliff deal was that doing nothing and going over the cliff would’ve given us a much better deal automatically than anything House Republicans would’ve agreed to. Rich thinks we should’ve agreed to Social Security cuts (chained CPI is a 3% benefit cut) and whined less about the $400,000 cut-off in exchange for a better deal. I disagree. The only items worth bargaining for were a permanent end to the debt ceiling and an extension of the payroll tax holiday. Republicans ruled out both early on, even while the chained CPI trial balloon was still being floated by the White House. With those items off the table, there was no point in making a deal. Going over the “cliff” and negotiating from the 2013 baseline where all the Bush tax cuts have expired would have put Democrats in a way better negotiating position.

It’d be nice if we could win a House majority in 2014, but the big important pieces of the Obama agenda in the second term don’t require Congress. The White House’s agenda is mostly on autopilot, and the only way to screw it up is if Obama pre-compromises with the Republicans to please the DC bipartisanship fetishists.


  1. Why is governing by executive order a good idea for George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Hugo Chavez, or anyone else? I get a little concerned when anyone tells me the “right thing to do” is just have unaccountable executive authority.

    Why extend the payroll cuts without another (perhaps more progressive) form of taxation on the table?

    Get over this “national popular vote” for the Congress. There’s no such thing. Elbridge Gerry governed over 200 years ago and everyone gets a turn.

    Nothing worse than today’s lamentations that life is so much worse now than it used to be. Come on. In a country where a slightly different cell phone is the only thing that takes people’s eyes off the X-Box.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      The right thing to do is let parties actually govern when they get elected. The reason the popular vote matters is that Congressional seat distribution typically tracks the popular vote. Here you have a situation where more people voted for Democrats, but there’s still a Republican House. That doesn’t bother you?

    • Jon Geeting says:

      Also, gridlock is definitely worse than it used to be. America’s political institutions have never performed this badly There have never been this many filibusters.

  2. No, I think we should eventually agree to chained CPI. There was no reason to agree to that in this deal, because we passed it without it. I have no problem with eventually allowing it though. It’s a 3% cut on future benefits, yes, but social security is not a primary income program, and never was meant to be. Chained CPI covers 1/3 of the shortfall alone, and keeps the program in place. Other than ending the ceiling on payroll taxes, which won’t pass, it’s the best way forward. Advocating for the continuation of the payroll tax holiday is weakening the program. Also, the change in the tax threshold took us from $690 billion in new revenue to $610 billion over the decade.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      I think if you take the usual labor liberal arguments seriously about stagnating wages, less generous pensions and all the rest, then the obvious policy agenda is using Social Security to supplant the traditional company pension. Social Security needs to become more generous, more of a primary income program, in response to the crap pension situation in the private sector. The fact is that most seniors rely on Social Security as primary income, and that only seems likely to increase. Short of a forced saving policy, there is no better way to address the retirement insecurity problem.

      As for the Bush tax cuts, the concessions on the tax threshold are going in the wrong direction. The real deficit reduction is going to come from letting all the Bush tax cuts expire, on the “middle class” portion as well as $250K+.

  3. $610 billion over 10 years; if my liberal education doesn’t let me down, that’s $61 billion per year, which doesn’t move the needle against a deficit of $1 trillion each year. If you think that some how that makes sense, and I’ve seen you try to do it, you’re a moron

  4. The makeup of the Congress does not bother me because it isn’t a national body by design. In most states, seats are locally focused, and at broadest they are allocated by State. So no, if I live in New Mexico how people vote in Ohio really doesn’t need to matter to me. That’s the system, and for a huge country it isn’t irrational, though I would prefer stronger parties too.

    I can’t ink of a European country that works on a simplistic pure PR or “national popular vote.” It is as rules relevant as the national vote of left handers.

    Filibusters are a Senate rule and not a Constitutional requirement. Rules can be changed. We all know why both parties have now chosen not to.

    I would guess that our national political institutions worked worse from 1850-1865.dont worry so much!

    • Jon Geeting says:

      “So no, if I live in New Mexico how people vote in Ohio really doesn’t need to matter to me”

      It should! The US Congress decides national policy issues. I’d prefer proportional representation to select state delegations. Statewide votes on all 17 Congressmen, rather than district by gerrymandered district.

      • Not really–“it should.” More like–“I want it to.” I like systems that give some play to regional differences and regional issues. We live in a large country.

        Every state has the option to do what you ask, however!

        • Isn’t that what the state legislature is for? National bodies decide national issues. Besides, if a state decides it’s delegation by a statewide popular vote, that would not stop it from having a regional and state interest. The New Mexico and New York Delegations might both be Democratic, but they wouldn’t be a match.

          It also ends the ridiculous gerrymandering. I mean c’mon, we’re down here in Easton, in a district with Wilkes-Barre, but not with Bethlehem. At least, if you’re going to have districts, have the decency of Iowa and say you can’t split counties.

        • Jon Geeting says:

          Rich is right – state legislatures are for managing competing regional political interests. The federal legislature is for managing competing megaregional differences.

  5. Jack Contado says:

    More revenue….? can you provide a list of additional revenue sources that total $1 trillion per year?

    • Jon Geeting says:

      Sure – any combination of ending mortgage interest deduction, deduction for state and local taxes, tax-exempt employer health plans, carried interest loophole, ending Bush tax cuts on income below $400K, ending fossil fuel subsidies. Do ’em all, and any revenue collected beyond what’s needed could go to reducing tax rates.

      • Jack Contado says:

        “…mortgage interest deduction, deduction for state and local taxes, tax-exempt employer health plans, carried interest loophole, ending Bush tax cuts on income below $400K, ending fossil fuel subsidies. Do ‘em all, and any revenue collected beyond what’s needed could go to reducing tax rates.”
        Can you demonstrate how these total $1 trillion?

  6. Rich–you have everything going for you except public opinion and the rules!

    Come on–The line you draw between state and national legislatures is a distinction without a difference. In what way does the Congress deal with “national” issues exclusively? Every single local issue finds a way to becoming an issue of strategic significance. A lot of people would love to see the Congress only deal with truly “national” issues but that’s hard to define and impossible to put in practice.

    By “regional” I meant what you call “mega region.” The issues are different in Idaho and Montana than they are in Ohio and Indiana. People elect whom they want to bring those concerns to the Federal level. That’s why the national popular vote, besides having no basis in law or fact, is basically irrelevant.

    I’m all for the ending of gerrymandering (although anything with a border is always going to cause someone to complain). However–just look at California, where a fairly modest anti-gerrymandering reform package was vociferously opposed on a bipartisan basis and needed a citizens initiative.

    By the Constitution, every state can do congressional delegations any way it wants (within the rules). However, the professional politician isn’t your friend on this one.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      Actually I don’t believe a state can do what Rich is talking about without a change in federal law. You could get pretty close to true PR with something like this layered district model.

    • The Federal Government does not fix your pot hole. It also doesn’t decide your local noise ordinance. In fact, it doesn’t even decide how a town can zone itself, as state law decides that. The Federal Government passes laws and regulations that are national. They appropriate money to departments that are national, or directly to the states, but even there they deal with all the states. There is no reason a Congressman from Pennsylvania shouldn’t be there representing all of Pennsylvania, and not just say Lancaster County. All this does is tie down what should be a good of the state, good of the nation issue in “well what will my locals say” situation. It’s not a good way to set national policy.

      As for regions, I know what you meant, which is why I picked two left-leaning states far apart. It’s not like Dems and Republicans in New Mexico and Arizona wouldn’t have some common regional interests between them. Unless you literally eliminated state representation, which cannot happen, you’ll always have an interest in regional politics within Congress.

      You’re right that the guys in Harrisburg won’t give up their right to gerrymander probably soon, but that doesn’t change the fact that we’re doing this wrong.

  7. Jack Contado says:

    So I take it you can’t demonstrate how your revenue proposals total $1 trillion?

  8. Rich,

    I think the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act puts a dent in that argument. I would say the Federal Government, in particular the Congress, took great pride in fixing your pot hole, your old bridge, and your old stretch of county road! The signs say as much! Polls have long shown that they hate the Congress but think their own Rep is great.

    I don’t mean to say that the Congress wants to do zoning, but it is glad to fund certain tourist sites, certain nature parks, and move federal functions to certain places–which is one of the reasons I find earmarking odious.

    Take your state argument to the next level. Why should a Congressman “from” Allentown have more interest in representing Pittsburgh than in representing Phillipsburg, NJ? Or the guy from Pittsburgh–shouldn’t he care a bit more about Youngstown, OH? We have “representatives” that represent the whole state–they are called Senators!

    I think gerrymandering is the right issue to fight. But then every major political figure, when given a chance, says “well, we’ll do it when State X does it.” Either its time for a Constitutional Convention on the matter, or its time to fight for local action at the State Level and risk the idea that 2 reps may be from a party you don’t like.

Speak Your Mind