“Washington, right now, is broken,” said Vice President Biden in February. “I’ve never seen it this dysfunctional.”
Back then, Biden was just one of many who complained that partisan rancor and gamesmanship had brought the functioning of the federal government virtually to a halt, making it impossible for the president and lawmakers to get anything done. “Washington is broken” became the political world’s conventional wisdom.
Fast-forward to Wednesday. Celebrating the passage of a new law allowing homosexuals to serve openly in the military, President Obama said the event marked “the culmination of two of the most productive years in the history of Congress.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and others echoed the president’s assessment.
What happened? How could a government that was broken just a few months earlier suddenly become so productive?
The answer is, Washington was never broken. The Democratic majorities in the House and Senate passed, mostly by themselves, a remarkable slate of legislation in 2009 and 2010: national health care, the stimulus, financial regulation, don’t-ask-don’t-tell, hate crimes, the START treaty, and more. They had big majorities — 255 seats in the House, and 60 in the Senate — and in some cases were willing to disregard both public opinion and the electoral consequences of their actions. So they got a lot done.
Democrats and their partisans in the press complained about Washington being broken only at those times when their agenda was imperiled. Vice President Biden’s statement, for example, came after the election of Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown took away the Democrats’ filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Just a few weeks later, when Barack Obama signed the national health care bill into law, Biden was all smiles.
Now, after the lame-duck session, Democratic leaders are happy again. But it’s only temporary. As the new year approaches, get ready for a new round of Democratic Washington-is-broken grumbling.
With a significantly smaller, 53-seat majority in the Senate, Democrats will no longer be able to pass contentious legislation all by themselves or with just one or two Republican votes. On the other side, Republicans, with 47 votes, will no longer have to achieve perfect unity to sustain a filibuster and stop objectionable legislation. They’ll be able to lose three, four, five, even six members of the GOP caucus and still stop a bill.