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'Message discipline' can win elections but is not a healthy way to run a country.
Dec. 30, 2013 7:06 p.m. ET
The past year may go down not only as the least productive ever in Washington but as one of the worst for the republic.
In both the executive branch and Congress, Americans witnessed an unwinding of the country's founding principles and of their government's most basic responsibilities. The rule of law gave way to the rule of rulers. And the rule of reality—in which politicians are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts, as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan liked to say—gave way to some politicians' belief that they were entitled to both their own opinions and their own facts. It's no wonder the institutions of government barely function.
On health care, President Obama oversaw a disastrous and, sadly, dishonest launch of his signature achievement. The president gave an exception to employers, but not to individuals, without any legal basis, and made other adjustments according to his whim. Even more troubling was his message over the past three years that if you like your plan, you can keep it and that if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor. We now know that the administration was aware that these claims were false, yet Mr. Obama continued to make them, repeatedly.
In 2014, millions of Americans will likely discover that the president's claim that the average family will save $2,500 on health insurance was equally disconnected from reality.
The president apologized in part for his statements, but his actions reveal the extent to which he has conformed to, rather than challenged, the political culture that as a presidential candidate he vowed to reform.
The culture that Mr. Obama campaigned against, the old kind of politics teaches politicians that repetition and "message discipline"—never straying from using the same slogans and talking points—can create reality, regardless of the facts. Message discipline works if the goal is to win an election or achieve a short-term political goal. But saying that something is true doesn't make it so. When a misleading message ultimately clashes with reality, the result is dissonance and conflict. In a republic, deception is destructive. Without truth there can be no trust. Without trust there can be no consent. And without consent we invite paralysis, if not chaos.
Taking unilateral, extralegal action—like delaying the employer mandate for a year when Mr. Obama realized the trouble it would cause for businesses—is part of a pattern for this administration. Immigration and border-security laws that might displease certain constituencies if enforced? Ignore the laws. Unhappy that a deep-water drilling moratorium was struck down in court? Re-impose it anyway. Internal Revenue Service agents using the power of the state to harass political enemies? Deny and then stonewall. Unhappy with the pace of Senate confirmations for nominees? Ignore the Constitution and appoint people anyway and claim that the Senate is not in session.
The Obama administration hardly has a monopoly on contributing to Washington's dysfunction. Congress more than earned its 6% national approval rating, a historic low.
Congress's most significant action this year was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's decision to undo 200 years of precedent that requires a supermajority to change Senate rules. To speed the approval of executive appointments and judicial nominations, Sen. Reid resorted to raw political power, forcing a vote (52-48) that allows the Senate majority to change the rules whenever it wants. In a republic, if majorities can change laws or rules however they please, you're on the road to life with no rules and no laws.
The supermajority safeguard that prevented senators from destroying the institution in which they serve is now largely gone. Gone also are members of the majority who understood the need to protect minority rights. There are no more Robert Byrd’s to quote Cicero, who said, "In a republic this rule ought to be observed: that the majority should not have the predominant power."
Instead, we have a majority leader who has appointed himself a Rules Committee of one. Referring to the right of the minority to offer changes to bills under consideration, Mr. Reid said: "The amendment days are over." Like President Obama, Mr. Reid is great at message discipline but weak on the rule of law and reality. His narrative about Republican obstruction of appointees is a diversion from his own war against minority rights. Even before his wrecking of the supermajority tradition, Mr. Reid had already used Senate rules to cut off debate and prevent the minority from offering amendments 78 times—more than all other Senate majority leaders combined.
On the budget, Democrats and Republicans alike are celebrating the avoidance of another nihilistic government shutdown as a great victory. The choice to not commit mass political suicide may be a step toward sanity, but it isn't reform. Solving the problem—fixing entitlements, reforming the tax code and consolidating the government's $200 billion in duplicative spending—would be reform. Yet as my annual Waste book report showed, even in this year of budget-sequestration anguish, the federal government still managed to fund the study of romance novels, provide military benefits to the Fort Hood shooter and even help the State Department buy itself Facebook fans.
If Congress wants to get serious, and be taken seriously, it can start by doing its job. It can debate and pass individual appropriations bills—a task that Congress has not completed in eight years. And perhaps Congress can cut some of the stupidity in government spending. The House deserves some credit for trying—it passed four appropriations bills—but the Senate deserves none. Mr. Reid did not pass a single appropriations bill in 2013, thus shielding vulnerable members of his party from having to make tough votes.
How the nation's leaders perform in Washington is a reflection of the country, and culture, they represent. Moral relativism and postmodern disregard of truth has been promoted by academia for decades; sometimes it seems that the best students of that thinking can be found in Washington. We live in a time when laws and rules are defined however the holders of power decree, and "messaging" is paramount, regardless how far the message is from reality.
The coming year presents an opportunity to Americans who hope for better. Despite Washington's dysfunction, "We the People" still call the shots and can demand a course correction. In 2014, here's a message worth considering: If you don't like the rulers you have, you don't have to keep them.
Mr. Coburn, a Republican, is a senator from Oklahoma.