Rules and Norms on Capitol Hill

Jonathan Bernstein assesses GOP strategy, with a great baseball story:

The GOP practice, for the last twenty years or so, has been to play the "game" of politics in part by looking through the rule book for strategies that go beyond the norms of politics but are allowed under the literal reading of the rules. Examples include mid-decade redistricting, the recall of a California governor for no particular reason, and impeaching Bill Clinton. And, most notably, filibusters in the Senate as a routine measure. The idea is that in a normal, healthy, political system there's always going to be some gap between the written Constitutional and statutory rules on the one hand, and norms and practices on the other. A clever political party can gain occasional short-term advantages through exploiting that difference. Hmmm...19th century baseball: I seem to recall a story that someone (perhaps King Kelly?) was sitting on the bench when a pop foul came near him. Springing into action, he announced "Kelly in at catcher for Smith" and caught the ball for an out, pointing out after the fact to the umpire that nowhere in the rules did it say that substitutions couldn't take place in mid-play.

As Jonathan says, they've been exploiting this difference between facts and norms for a while; some time ago, I wrote a column about how the Republicans were the party of "Yes we can" while the Democrats were the party of "Maybe we shouldn't":

This audacity gap in American politics can be traced back as far as you like. But in its most recent incarnation, it dates to the disputed 2000 presidential election in Florida. Again and again, Republicans looked at prevailing norms and realized that there was no cost to violating them. It's true, they might have said, that nobody in this country has ever decided to organize a small riot to intimidate election officials and shut down vote-counting that might not go our way. But what's to stop us? It's true, the five conservatives on the Supreme Court might have said, that no Court has ever issued as blatantly partisan a decision as the one in Bush v. Gore, going so far as to write that "our consideration is limited to the present circumstances, for the problem of equal protection in election processes generally presents many complexities," lest any future appellant try to hold them to their atrocious reasoning. But what's to stop us? It's true, Karl Rove might have said, that firing U.S. attorneys if they refuse to turn their offices into arms of the Republican National Committee might never have been done before. But what's to stop us?

Again and again, the answer to the question "What's to stop us?" turned out to be "Nothing."

The key is that whatever outrage that might be mustered against procedural gimmickry is absolutely lost on most Americans -- they just think it's a bunch of people bickering in Washington. And it should be noticed that President Obama helps this along, by frequently arguing that the problem in a particular situation is that "Washington" can't get its act together. His impulse to be above the fray is such that he can barely utter the word "Republican," which is just fine by Republicans.

In any case, as Kevin Drum points out, right now, in a basement office on the Hill, someone is trying to find the next loophole that no one ever thought of exploiting to subvert the norms that allow business to be done. "What's the next Capitol Hill norm that some bright young up-and-comer will figure out is just a norm — one that only naive schoolboys need to pay attention to? Beats me. But whatever it is, Republicans will find it." Democrats don't do the same thing not necessarily because they're better people but because they have a different view of what the costs are. Democrats tend to get freaked out by a tongue-lashing from The Washington Post editorial page over some bit of procedural bad sportsmanship, while Republicans not only don't care; they realize that no one else in the country does, either.

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