The Rules of the Game and the Limits of Knowledge

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Could Democrats really block President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominations if they wanted to? If they were willing to do whatever it takes?

The answer, Congress scholar Greg Koger sets out in a very detailed and nicely nuanced item, is a flat-out “no.” They cannot. But reading through the piece actually made me a little more sympathetic toward those who believe Democratic senators can. 

There are very few people on Earth who actually know the answer to this one. Koger is an academic who has written a (terrific) book on filibusters. There are other plenty of other Congress scholars, but many of them focus on other aspects of the institution, not Senate floor rules and the politics of confirmations. Senators themselves often rely on staff for knowledge of relevant Senate rules, but most staffers in my experience don’t really know the rules that well. The same with lobbyists and activists. One does need a working knowledge of basic congressional procedures to do those jobs well, but I suspect many of them get under water pretty quickly once things get beyond standard procedures. 

I know I’ve been a Senate staffer, taught upper-division classes on Congress several times, and blogged and written columns about Congress for years, but if something unusual comes up, I’ll be asking Koger or Molly Reynolds or Sarah Binder to explain it to me. 

So if you’re an activist or just an interested citizen, it’s very difficult to know who the real experts are and who is willing to spout off without really knowing anything. And it’s hard to just trust one’s party; many observers believe, for example, that Democratic Senator Pat Leahy was badly outmaneuvered on “blue slips” when he was Judiciary Committee chair. 

Anyone who follows politics and government over time gets to know which experts to trust and can learn to read critically to determine the truth themselves. It certainly doesn’t take an advanced degree to know the basics about what’s happening in government and public affairs (and voting doesn’t and shouldn’t even require that). But when something comes down to obscure rules and procedures, things can get very difficult very quickly. 

The fact that many aspects of U.S. politics are governed by obscure rules and procedures is in many ways a consequence of a lot of very good things about Madisonian government: federalism, separated institutions sharing powers, and an overall decentralization of influence. All of those mean that power is shared by the many (if not all), not the few. But it also means that anyone trying to understand what’s going on — experts and participants included — is always coming up to the limits of their knowledge of the rules of the game, whether it’s Senate floor procedure or the presidential nomination process or the overlapping jurisdictions of local governments. Which, again, is fine; we usually don’t need to know, and if we’re ever in a situation where we need to, we can learn the details then. But it does add barriers to just understanding the day-to-day functioning of it all.

1. Peter Andreas at the Monkey Cage on borders in U.S. history.

2. Also at the Monkey Cage: Dana Fisher on who the immigration marchers were on Saturday. 

3. Marcy Wheeler has some insight into the costs of the Republican war on law enforcement

4. I liked my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Albert Hunt’s Fourth of July column. Don’t worry, it’s still good the day after.

5. And a little more U.S. history via Jeet Heer from historian Kevin Kruse, who explains what happened to the Dixiecrats. Two things to add. One is that I’m pretty confident that if we count everyone who was at one point a pro-segregation Democrat and eventually became an elected Republican at some level, it would be a lot higher than 200. Virtually all white Southerners were Democrats in, say, 1958, and most of them supported Jim Crow, so odds are that a lot of white Southerners born before 1945 (or even in the decade after that) who eventually became elected Republicans were in that group. The other, and important, point is that while many modern Southern Republicans have weak records on civil rights, very few even in the 1970s and 1980s supported Jim Crow. For the most part, the explicit bigots died out, retired or reformed, so while there is continuity between the older Dixiecrats and modern Republicans, there are also some big differences.  

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