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Creature of dysfunction

Joe Lieberman's power is a sympton of senatorial gridlock

I'm not quite sure how we wound up with President Lieberman. Last I recall, he completed his sole bid for the presidency on Feb. 3, 2004, when he got his butt kicked by losing seven out of seven Democratic contests.

Yet thanks to the undemocratic rules and routinized dysfunction of the U.S. Senate, this guy gets the opportunity to issue peremptory decrees about health care reform, with the aim of bending the overwhelming Democratic majority to his whimsical will. All because he has set himself up as the crucial 60th vote in a chamber that now seems to require 60 votes for passage of anything remotely substantive.

My aim today is not to detail Lieberman's latest craven act, in which he declared his stalwart opposition to the Democratic health reform compromise that would've allowed people over age 55 to buy into Medicare - just three short months after he had publicly voiced support for allowing people over age 55 to buy into Medicare, a stance he had also supported when he was Al Gore's running mate. Nor is my aim to replay the ongoing debate over what really motivates Lieberman's obstructionism. (Is he still bitter about his '06 Senate Democratic primary defeat? Is he trying to torpedo health reform in order to please the private health insurance industry that has pumped $1 million into his career? At this point, who cares?)

What interests me most is how Lieberman has become a prime symptom of the Senate's institutional ills. He has been exercising virtual veto power over health care reform only because the Democrats sorely need him as the 60th vote, and the only reason they sorely need him is because - thanks to the omnipresent threat of a filibuster, and thanks to the extreme partisan polarization - the Senate can barely pass ordinary legislation anymore unless there are 60 votes to do it. That's the bare number required to break a filibuster and thus prevent a minority from thwarting the majority.

This routinization of the filibuster is actually a fairly recent development, little remarked upon in the press. For nearly 200 years, the Senate passed all kinds of important legislation via simple majority votes. Lawmakers on the left and right routinely compromised and formed bipartisan coalitions to get things done. Most importantly, filibusters were exceedingly rare. Senate scholars have discovered that there were only 23 filibusters during the entire nineteenth century; in the 2007-2008 Senate alone, there were 142.

In the words of Julian Zelizer, a Princeton history professor who has studied the Senate, "the filibuster has become a normalized tool of political combat. There have been more filibusters employed in any given single year since the 1980s than took place throughout all of the nineteenth century." He rightly attributes this "filibuster-mania" to the growing ideological divide between the parties, and the lessening appetite for compromise. All told, he says, the Senate today "is a source of obstructionism, anti-majoritarianism, and dysfunctional deliberation."

And Lieberman is its creature. In a normal era, he would not be flexing so much muscle. In a normal era, an overwhelming majority of Democrats (say, 57 or 58, all of them duly elected to get things done) would simply pass major legislation with, say, 57 or 58 votes, and Lieberman's independence would be an irrelevent footnote.

Instead, here was Lieberman recently, hurling thunderbolts on Fox News: "I will not allow this (health reform) bill to come to a final vote." And here he was on CBS News: "I will use the power I have as a single senator to stop a final vote."

But what's fascinating about Lieberman is how often his sanctimony is trumped by his hypocrisy. Back in 1995, he actually co-sponsored Senate legislation that would have curbed the filibuster. Back then, he complained that the power of a single senator was a bad thing. He complained about how the filibuster "has increased the power of every individual senator, and senators aren't too good at yielding individual power."

Today, thanks to the ever-present threat of a GOP filibuster on health reform, he revels in the power he wields "as a single senator." Yet here's what he said in November 1994, when his curb-the-filibuster bill was first being readied: "I think the filibuster has become not only in reality an obstacle to accomplishment here, but it is also a symbol of a lot that ails Washington today....The whole process of individual senators being able to hold up legislation, which in a sense is an extension of the filibuster - it's just unfair."

Clearly, those articulations don't square with Lieberman's principles of the moment. All that matters now, apparently, is that the majority Democrats bow and scrape, and craft health reform to his liking. The Medicare buy-in has been duly jettisoned. And yesterday, Lieberman finally sorta said that he is finally ready to like. From his lips fell these words: "I am getting to that position to where I can say what I wanted to say all along, that I'm ready to vote for health care reform."

Oh thank you thank you, creature of Senate dysfunction! Shall we wash your car now? Or shall we simply cue up "Hail to the Chief?"