It’s hard to describe the U.S. Senate as existing in a state of nirvana. But Congress often falls victim to something called the “nirvana fallacy.”
No, the “nirvana fallacy” isn’t some Gen X, grunge-infused allegory about Kurt Cobain, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. It’s a nostrum that dictates people choose between an impeccable, foolproof solution to a problem and a more realistic, pragmatic alternative.
The nirvana fallacy unfolds all the time on Capitol Hill. That’s why lawmakers and aides frequently bemoan that colleagues let “the perfect be the enemy of the good” when efforts to forge a legislative compromise go south.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., put a different spin on that adage this week as senators wrestled with a sticky bill to help Puerto Rico avoid a $2 billion default on Friday. Few lawmakers truly embraced the Puerto Rico package. But they knew the bill was the only alternative. Otherwise, the commonwealth could devolve into fiscal chaos, shuttering hospitals and schools. The shocks could rock the bond market.
So Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, summoned Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to the Dirksen Senate Office Building to meet with Democrats Tuesday.
Wyden knew the Puerto Rico bankruptcy bill was unpopular. Detractors characterized the plan as a “bailout.” Bondholders fretted they wouldn’t get paid and pressured senators to vote nay. And with no formal constituency in Congress, some lawmakers frankly didn’t care about the Puerto Rico measure.
But in the end, Wyden was convinced the Senate had to approve the measure for Puerto Rico, as flawed and meager as it may be.
“I'm not going to let the adequate be the enemy of the barely sufficient,” quipped the Oregon Democrat.
A chasm yawns between “the perfect being the enemy of the good” and Wyden’s “adequate” being “the enemy of the barely sufficient.”
A “nirvana fallacy” this Puerto Rico bill wasn’t.
To Wyden, the Puerto Rico bankruptcy measure was simply one of those legislative packages lawmakers must accept after taking a deep gulp.
The bill helps Puerto Rico restructure its debt and imposes a financial control board. But for months, there were questions if the plan would ever move through Congress. The political machinations were downright ugly.
After months of consternation, the House approved the measure 297-127, despite 103 Republican no votes. Only 24 Democrats voted nay. Then onto the Senate, where lawmakers from both sides looked askance at the legislation.
But first the bill needed to vault a crucial procedural hurdle to overcome opposition from both sides of the aisle. The test vote would require 60 yeas. But there was a problem. The Puerto Rico bill was an orphan. No one really liked the bill. And with the House of Representatives out of session this week for legislative business, the Senate faced a take-it-or-leave it scenario. Either approve the bill as is, or change it and punt it back to the House ... as the deadline expired.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., blocked possible amendments to the bill.
“There’s no time for amendments,” said McConnell. “We’re up against a July 1 deadline.”
McConnell told his colleagues that “failure is not an option.”
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., emerged as one of the most ardent opponents of the bill. He demanded amendments to at least try to rework parts of the package.
“The Senate is the institution where one man or woman can seek to make change,” argued Menendez. “I don't accept this or nothing. I accept that this can be better.”
On Tuesday, Menendez went to the Senate floor at 3:23 p.m. to express his grievances. He didn’t cede the floor for four hours and 17 minutes. From a strict parliamentary perspective, Menendez’s protracted oratory didn’t qualify as a filibuster. He technically wasn’t holding up any legislation as the Senate was already on a glide path to hold a procedural vote on the Puerto Rico measure Wednesday. Contrast Menendez’s sustained speech to that of Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., on firearms. Granted, Murphy held the floor for 14 hours and 50 minutes over parts of two days. But few astute congressional watchers even observed the elongated elucidation of the New Jersey Democrat … or even cared.
A #holdthefloor hashtag didn’t trend on Twitter and no one flocked to the public viewing gallery to hear Menendez. At one point late in Menendez’s presentation, precisely no one filled any of the seats in the Senate’s public viewing gallery.
There were certainly lawmakers who abhorred the Puerto Rico plan like Menendez. But not enough to make a big scene about it.
Perhaps part of the reason was because lawmakers realized they had to tackle the legislation by July 1. Otherwise, they risked pitching Puerto Rico into an economic abyss.
“Puerto Rico has never defaulted on constitutional debt,” warned Lew after his huddle with senators. “Time is of the essence.”
The alternative if the Senate didn’t just approve the House-adopted plan? Well, U.S. taxpayers could be on the hook for what many consider a true bailout.
In the end, “barely sufficient” prevailed over the “adequate” as the Senate approved the package 68-30.
That’s the polemical trap in which Congress sometimes finds itself: the nirvana fallacy with the perfect serving as the enemy of the good. No nirvana fallacy there. On Puerto Rico, lawmakers simply paraphrased Kurt Cobain: “Nevermind.”
Capitol Attitude is a weekly column written by members of the Fox News Capitol Hill team. Their articles take you inside the halls of Congress, and cover the spectrum of policy issues being introduced, debated and voted on there.