In a New York Magazine interview with Jason Zengerle, retiring Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) said that the major structural reform that’s necessary to effect change in the political cycle is, “To get rid of the filibuster in the Senate.”
I’d argue that the major necessary structural change isn’t the filibuster — partly because a series of failed cloture votes doesn’t equal a “filibuster”: what Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) did for eight solid hours in December 2010 is a filibuster. If the Majority Leader held the wanna-filibusterees to their bluster, we’d have about two before the nonsense ended, which might delay 4 Post Office naming bills. Instead, the power of incumbency (and, relatedly, the lack of voter participation and efforts by state-level Republicans to put more strictures on it) means that, even in the People’s House, elected officials don’t necessarily feel that beholden to the people they are sent their to represent. And when legislators think they can act — or in the case of the current political climate, not-act — without electoral consequences, there’s few incentives for them to reflect the will of their constitutents.
An example: pundits have held that 2010′s Republican takeover in Congress was a sea change. Yet, 85 percent of Congress was reelected. Granted, the last time the reelection rate for incumbents was so low was 1970, and that the lowest it was in the decade prior was 94 percent, but that’s hardly a sea change. Even the Senate, which has the reputation of being slow to change, has had a turnover rate of an average of about 85 percent for the last decade. (And, if one goes district-by-district, the rates at which citizens reelect individual legislators range from a comfortable 55 percent to a Soviet-like 98 percent in any given year.)
If in a bad year, the statistical likelihood of being reelected is 85 percent — and it’s normally much higher — what’s the incentive to rock the boat? If leadership thinks that fighting makes for better optics than compromising, who’s going to buck leadership even if all that infighting and lack of accomplishment means their constituents give Congress approval ratings as low as 12 percent?
Congress members know that, barring the loss of Congressional seats (as happened, for instance, in Ohio and New York after the 2010 Census) or another attempt at interference like Rep. Tom DeLay’s (R-TX), gerrymandering by state legislators is more likely to protect most incumbents than create competitive or cohesive districts. (And, if there’s non-partisan redistricting at hand, at least some of them will try to game that system, too.) And with voter participation rates in non-leap years steady at only around 40 percent on average, and only up to 60 percent during hotly contested Presidential races — which is not to speak of states, like Virginia, which elect state legislators in odd-number years when voter participation is even lower — even if 78 percent of the country thinks Congress sucks, only some percentage of those voters will bother to show up in November. Heck, with approval ratings that low, it’s possible that the most frustrated people won’t show up at all to vote against them.
The Occupy Movement has made it clear that there’s a lot of room to advocate for social change and social justice from outside the political system, and get people excited and active in opposing the policies that they don’t like or a government that doesn’t seem to represent their interests. But without a commitment to showing up and voting (and helping others register and vote), or even participating in the political process that ends on Election Day, protestors can be as loud as they want, and those in the corridors of power will simply shut the doors and go back to listening to themselves on CSPAN.
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