Getting Right with Reid

At times it’s hard to understand why there isn’t a daily news story about Harry Reid punching out somebody.

Although Reid was a boxer and even told in his life story about a couple of thrashings he administered, and the media often have mentioned this, the perception persists on both sides that he’s too weak and can’t get anything done. Meanwhile, liberals and Democrats wind up praising legislation passed almost entirely through his work, and conservatives and right-wingers howl about the same legislation and blame him for it.

Consider the recent fight over gun control. Why didn’t the Manchin-Toomey measure to expand background checks pass? The best answer is in a blog previously mentioned here, those against gun control outworked, outhustled and outlobbied those who are for it. Even alleged political columnist (make that alleged columnist) Maureen Dowd blew it, saying Barack Obama should have just, uh, made them vote the way he wanted.

Reid should have enjoyed that, since too often his supposed friends on the left say he should just order his caucus to vote a certain way. Instead, on this one, they attacked Reid for voting against the amendment. Some news reports simply mentioned that fact or buried the key point: it was a procedural measure. By voting against the measure, under Senate rules, Reid keeps the power to reintroduce it if the votes can be found (such as from his Nevada colleague, Dean Heller, who said he supports expanded background checks but voted against Manchin-Toomey because … uh, well, just not THIS bill. Maybe he’ll vote for one the NRA and its allies approve of).

So, Reid’s vote against the bill helps the gun control side. But even on websites pointing this out, the liberal response often was, well, he was still wrong, and he should have ordered Democrats to vote with him, and it’s his fault anyway because he wouldn’t reform the filibuster.

One of the arguments in 2010 for re-electing Reid (beyond his record and having an opponent who was a daily embarrassment) was that as Senate majority leader, he has a lot of power. That doesn’t make his power boundless. That power includes setting the rules under which the Senate operates—with a majority vote. Not by himself.

It may not have seemed related, but it was, when Reid also made news in talking about how implementing Obamacare could be a mess. Why? Because Republicans have done their best or worst, depending on your point of view, to keep it from being funded. Yet Reid also said that while Obama is using his power to move some money around, “The White House over the last 30 years, maybe more, has been taking away too much power from the legislative branch. I’d be happy to talk
about earmarks, which is one example—this is only a power-grab by the White House.”

Yet the presumption, more prevalent on the left than on the right, is that Reid is responsible when his caucus doesn’t vote as a unit, but not responsible when it does. Apparently, individual thought exists among those on either side who critique politicians, but not among the politicians themselves. As Jonathan Chait, the marvelous commentator for New York magazine, put it after an Obama press conference, “Obama told reporters once again that members of Congress have free will. Magical thinkers regard this view with total incredulity.”

True, and yet another reason for all of us to get in touch with your elected officials and share our views intelligently and respectfully, since we expect them to treat us with intelligence and respect. But Reid’s point about earmarks is subtle yet telling. Would Dean Heller have voted against the background checks he previously had been supporting if he learned that every earmark he had for Nevada was about to disappear without leaving even a laundry mark?

Earmarks might or might not be a way to force Republicans to legislate and negotiate for once. Or to quote a legendary Democratic speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, “we’re builders, not obstructionists. Any jackass can kick down the barn door, but it takes a carpenter to build one.” Yet when Rayburn wanted to push through civil rights legislation in the late 1950s, senior southern Democrats in both houses blocked him. Maybe our problems aren’t so new.