Political Animal


September 22, 2011 4:00 PM Quote of the Day

By Steve Benen

After last night’s failure in the House on a continuing resolution, Congress is eight days from a government shutdown with no clear avenue on how to resolve the impasse. It led one senator to share an interesting perspective with Ezra Klein.

Last night, during an interview with a senator on another topic, the news of the stopgap’s failure came over the transom. “This is what it’s like now,” said the suddenly tired-sounding legislator. “The new definition of success around here is just keeping the lights on.”

That’s a good line. It’s also true.

After the 2010 midterms, a handful of exceedingly optimistic pundits thought congressional Republicans would work constructively on actual policymaking in this Congress. For all the disagreements between the parties, these optimists imagined possible deals on issues like immigration and energy policy.

But nearly nine months into this Congress, those optimists look pretty silly. We’ve reached the point where everyone is quite impressed when Washington manages, after painful disputes that seem to drag on endlessly, to somehow keep the lights on. Passing meaningful legislation is a pipe dream, if not literally laughable.

At this point, the political world is relieved when federal policymakers struggle to just barely complete the most basic tasks. We’ve set the bar for success so low, avoiding shutdowns is somehow deemed an accomplishment.

Also note, this isn’t going to get better — as the election season draws closer, it’s going to get worse. And so long as congressional Republicans remain radicalized, there’s no reason to think conditions will improve after this Congress, either.

The public didn’t recognize or appreciate it, but 2009 and 2010 were pretty extraordinary for getting stuff done in Washington, despite Republican efforts to break the Senate. We won’t see a period of productivity like that again for a very long time.

Worst of all, this is what Americans said they wanted when they voted last year.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • sue on September 22, 2011 4:10 PM:

    No, this is what happens when Democratic voters stay home and Republicans have millions of dollars of scary ads on TV for months driving them into a frenzy.

  • blondie on September 22, 2011 4:11 PM:

    No, this is NOT "what Americans said they wanted when they voted last year."

    I think there were three segments of the voting public that brought this about:

    1. Angry Democratic voters who stayed home; they were royally pissed off that the Dem Congress SQUANDERED its majority;

    2. Angry Republican voters who turned out much more vigorously (this IS what they wanted - or thought they did);

    3. Angry low-information voters who only knew that they were in pain and no one in Washington appeared to care.

  • kevo on September 22, 2011 4:17 PM:

    No, Mr. Benen, the American electorate voted in 2010 in the midst of a great fraud:

    The Republcan Brand lied straight into the face of America when it said putting Americans back to work was what it would do should voters put it back into Congress. The entire last campaign season, this Brand said jobs, jobs, jobs was its major concern, and yet, we've been jacked since Republicans have taken the agenda setting power for themselves, and have offered us nothing but essentially, nothing, save the same old cultural wars they seem to never let go!

    If Americans don't vote the Rascals out this time around, Whale Oil, Beef Hooked for years to come! -Kevo

  • Anonymous on September 22, 2011 4:19 PM:

    "3. Angry voters who only knew that they were in pain and no one in Washington cared."

    There I fixed it for you Blondie.

    No one in Washington appeared to care because no one in Washington really cares. They are all so well off they just don't have any clue what is actually happening in the rest of America. I include the evil and active Republicans and the sleepy complacent Democrats in this assessment.

  • Robert on September 22, 2011 4:34 PM:

    "what Americans said they wanted when they voted last year."

    I assume you mean its what their actions - voting for incompetent and irresponsible Republicans to take control of the House - imply they wanted. I agree but only in the way that it may be said an adolescent wants the punishment she/he receives after acting stupid and wrong.

  • ET on September 22, 2011 4:46 PM:

    The optimistic pundits weren't paying attention. The rest of us could see and understand the writing on the wall.

    Why they couldn't is really the fault of pundits wanting to be popular and be on all the kewl shows instead of offering a realistic picture of what was going on and the implications of the election. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that they will learn any lessons. And if they do, it will be the wrong ones because pundits are a remarkably ill equipped for self reflection.

  • T2 on September 22, 2011 4:46 PM:

    sue has it.
    and up until a few weeks ago, the same scenario appeared possible in 2012. Hopefully Obama's offensive will show the unhappy Dems the way to the polls.

    But more than that, when one party makes re-gaining power the end all, governance is dead.

  • Luthe on September 22, 2011 4:48 PM:

    Two things:

    1. I don't think the electorate as a whole knew how bad it was going to get.

    2. Voters vote for individual candidates. They don't think about what happens when all those candidates come together and act as one. How the Republican caucus is going to act is not one of the concerns your average voter thinks about when going to the polls.

  • June on September 22, 2011 4:54 PM:

    You know, the 111th Congress was one of the most productive in Congress' history. When I see comments like @blondie's that talk about "squandered," it speaks to me of someone who either deliberately chooses not to know how the legislative process works and/or denies the political reality around them. Even if the 111th Congress had only achieved a tenth of what it did, the fact that the economy was brought back from the brink of implosion, and that it actually started to produce growth, that 3-6 million jobs were saved/created, that the Affordable Care Act passed, that student loan reform was passed, and that the repeal of DADT was accomplished, leaves out "squandered." And it also leaves out "no one cares."

    Bloomberg had a good piece on the 111th Congress:

  • martin on September 22, 2011 4:54 PM:

    I'm sure I'm not the only one who had a choice between a Blue Dog incumbent and a Young Gun. I didn't have a chance to vote for what I "wanted", so I left the space blank. I don't regret leaving it blank as I could not support the result either way.

    Mr Captcha says its 68ºC, let's see if he accepts special characters in this heat, the weather says it's only 29

  • rrk1 on September 22, 2011 5:00 PM:

    The electorate has voted now three times for change. In 2006 the Democrats took control. Bush was finished. In 2008 voters gave Obama a huge mandate, and the Congress to make it happen. In 2010 voters were so pissed off at a president who suddenly became a Republican, and at feckless, pants-wetting Democrats that they voted their anger by installing something far worse. In a binary system you either vote one way or the other, or you stay home. Many stayed home., as they usually do in mid-term elections.

    What the American voters want is change. No matter how they vote they can't get it.

    So shall we have another change election in 2012? If Obama is reelected, and the Democrats retake the House, keep the Senate. Exactly what is going to change? Will the Democrats end the fillibuster? Will the Democrats enforce party discipline and vote with one voice as the Rethugs almost always do? Will Harry Reid finally be replaced? Will Obama follow through on his populist rhetoric? Will he end the bankrupting wars? Will the Bush tax cuts be allowed to expire? Will he put in place economic advisors not joined at the hip to Wall Street?

    Just asking.

    Captcha has had a relapse. Somebody, please, get the right medications.

  • June on September 22, 2011 5:10 PM:

    @rrk1 - What? Just - what?

    So, McCain would have fought for the passage of healthcare reform, fair pay for women, student loan reform, stimulus for the economy, rebates to seniors, patent reform, trade agreements that don't ship jobs overseas, tax code reforms, immigration reform, immediate restitution to those affected by the BP spill, immediate healthcare and financial help for 9/11 responders, transformation of the VA into a more efficient entity to carry out its mission, veterans employment, etc., etc., ?


    What people leave out in the "Dems-controlled-Congress" rant is that the Senate has to have 60 votes to pass ANYTHING. Dems had exactly 60 Senators, and were riddled with conservative Democrats, while Republicans voted no en masse on almost every single bill and there are no liberal or even moderate Republicans that Dems in the Senate could peel off - until the lame duck session, that is.

    It took serious party unity on the part of Democrats to get anything passed, and they did it. They deserve credit where credit is due.

  • Fuzzy on September 22, 2011 5:15 PM:

    I think we can agree to leave the lights on if they aren't those socialist energy-efficient bulbs.

  • blake on September 22, 2011 6:11 PM:

    lights on? didn't they even try to screw that up as well? (switching them out to the old incandescent types for.... freedom?)

  • JWK on September 22, 2011 6:32 PM:

    So the Cons want spending cuts? How about this: As Administrator in Chief, Obama simply lays off federal workers in all states and districts of the offending Republicans. See how their pipe dream of no government actually plays out.

  • Vince on September 22, 2011 7:03 PM:


    There is absolutely no reason that the Senate requires 60 votes to get stuff passed. It's simply a rule. The Democratic leadership, with urging from Obama, could have in either 2008 or 2010 eliminated that stupid rule at the beginning of those respective Congress's if they chose to do so. You could make an argument about 2008, though it was becoming clear even by then how off the rails the Republicans had become. By 2010, however, it was crystal clear that the Senate had become a dysfunctional disgrace for the country. In the face of the highest number of filibusters (by far) in the 2008-2010 congress did the Democrats change the filibuster rule? Nope. If the shoe were on the other foot, do you think the Republicans would hesitate for one second to change a rule that prevents them from pushing their repugnant agenda?

  • June on September 22, 2011 8:52 PM:


    RE: "It's simply a rule . A sitting President "urges" the Senate to change its rules, so that his agenda can be accomplished with a minimum of fuss -- that would have played out nicely in this toxic political environment - not. No bill passed during the 111th Congress would have been considered legitimate because 1) the GOP noise factory would have cried "foul!" 24/7 and guaranteed, the MSM would have backed them up. To change the "60-vote" rule during Obama's first term would have guaranteed a Republican sweep of the House and Senate in the mid-terms by a frenzied-to-the-max teabagger vote to "take back our country" -- and as much as we rank-and-file Dems love to eat our own, there would also have been plenty of I'm-a-liberal-but-I'm-not-voting-Dem-again-because-they-cheated-by-changing-the-rules folks out here helping out the GOP. And then, once Republicans regained the Senate plus the House, no doubt they would have "gone nuclear" by eliminating the filibuster, using the excuse of revenge for the 60-vote rule having been changed on the Dem's watch -- and added to that, the GOP would now have needed less than 60 votes to pass their insanely dangerous agenda, with very little in the way to stop them.

    Everything has a consequence and has to be thought through. Nothing in those chambers is "simply a rule."

  • Doug on September 22, 2011 8:57 PM:

    Vince, what happens if, FSM forbid, Perry wins in 2012 and all it takes is a simple majority to repeal ANYTHING?
    SS, DADT repeal, the EPA, HHS, you name it and it'd be gone.
    The Senate was created explicitly to delay and obstruct popular passions enacted into legislation as much as it was created to provide a forum to debate issues affecting the country and input into legislation created by the House. That Republican/Teabaggers have latched onto only the "delay and obstruct" part of the Senate's role is NOT the fault of the Senate. THAT blame lies directly on the shoulders of citizens too lazy to inform themselves of what's happening at the center of government of this country and vote accordingly and the MSM for failing to inform them.
    Changing rules or practices in place for a century or more requires the support of persons from more than one political party; ie, the CRA succeeded precisely BECAUSE it was supported by members of both parties, where Reconstruction failed BECAUSE it was perceived solely as a partisan policy. Otherwise, the gains resulting from the CRA might well have occurred a century earlier.
    Politics, metaphors notwithstanding, is NOT a "game"; the stakes are much too high...

  • Anonymous on September 23, 2011 1:50 AM:

    What has become so painfully obvious to me is how greatly I overestimated the American voters. I was astounded in 2000 and by 2004, I tried very hard to prepare myself for the worst and tried just as hard to remember that people would tend to not want to replace a President in the midst of a war. (Wasn't that convenient?)

    After 2006 & 2008, I thought just maybe 'the people' were catching on and maybe many were. That was when the Republican party went full throttle into crazy-land.

    I still want to believe most Americans are not that stupid... I can be stubbornly optimistic. It is 13+ months and counting until we find out the next scenario.

    Our little keyboard army had better get more organized and focused with our time. I speak for myself mainly. I do not plan to waste any time reading anything about Palin... maybe Bachmann if I need amusement. We need to be playing offense and I don't mean trying to inform the die-hard r-wing trolls what idiots they had on the stage tonight or how wrong-headed they are about practically everything.

    Our disorganization is hurting us and our country. We need to do better. We should focus on winnable races with progressive candidates for the House and Senate.

    btw - re: trade deals --- I'm not familiar with the details, but I'm highly skeptical about the 'not losing jobs' part. I would have to comb through that bill myself ... and maybe see someone's signature in blood or something. I'm sick up to here with the corporate give-aways and taxpayer funded training provided free to companies in the US just smells odd.

  • C P Zilliacus on September 23, 2011 6:41 AM:

    Young people did not bother to go to the polls in 2010, for an assortment of reasons (lazy?).

    The geezers ("keep the government away from my Medicare"), the gun kooks and the people that listen to Beck and Limbaugh did vote, and this is the result.