By Scott Lemieux
A political commentator points out an unusual aspect of the health care bill that recently passed in the Senate:
There’s no real precedent for such a major piece of social policy legislation as this health care bill being enacted into law on a party-line vote.
While in the past we might have expected to see some liberal Republicans vote for the health care bill and some conservative Republicans to oppose it, this didn't happen in 2009. To use V.O. Key's term, "party in government" is probably at its strongest point in American history. In large measure, this development is a result of the parties becoming more ideologically coherent -- one reason that the health care bill failed to attract the support of any liberal Republicans in the Senate is that there are so few left. Even so, historically it would have been much more likely that Maine's Republican Senator Olympia Snowe would have voted for the legislation instead of the conservative Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson, but the latter voted for the bill (after extracting some concessions) and the former didn't.
The rise of "party in government" the health care bill reflects, while often decried by political pundits who emphasize the virtues of bipartisanship, is seen as a good thing by many political scientists. Disciplined parties have a major obvious advantage: they increase the accountability of government. Ideologically coherent parties provide more information to voters and are easier to hold responsible for successes and failures. At a minimum, there's no reason to think of increased party discipline and polarization as inherently bad things.
One potential problem, however, is that party discipline may have unusual effects in the American case. Consider two of Lowi's principles of politics: "institutions routinely solve collective action problems" and "history matters." The esoteric rules of the Senate, which allow not only minority parties but individual Senators to obstruct the operations of the body, present an obvious collective action problem, in that routinized minority obstruction would in the long run make everyone worse off by preventing any party from enacting a substantial agenda. One reason that minority obstructions such as filibusters have been relatively rare is that loose party discipline means that Senators in the minority party may need the support of members of the majority party on another issue, so that the consequences of obstructionism manifested themselves much more quickly. When there's little possibility of attracting support across party lines, conversely, senators will see much short-term loss from being obstructionist, and if they gain politically in the short term may put less weight on long-term consequences.
So party realignment may put the Senate's rules and its traditions on a collision course. If party discipline continues to be strong, it seems likely the recent de facto requirement that the 6o votes required to break a filibuster, rather than the 50 (or 51 if the minority party controls the White House) needed to pass legislation, are necessary to move a bill forward will eventually broken by a majority party willing to change the rules. Until this happens, however, passing major legislation will be enormously difficult.