02 August 2010

Senate Solutions

George Packer's new article in The New Yorker, "The Empty Chamber," doesn't tell us much about the Senate we didn't already know. But it's a greater starter read on the state of Congress' upper house, and it gives details about the problems and prospects for change.

The lack of a real exchange of ideas:

The Senate is often referred to as “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” Jeff Merkley, a freshman Democrat from Oregon, said, “That is a phrase that I wince each time I hear it, because the amount of real deliberation, in terms of exchange of ideas, is so limited.” Merkley could remember witnessing only one moment of floor debate between a Republican and a Democrat. “The memory I took with me was: ‘Wow, that’s unusual—there’s a conversation occurring in which they’re making point and counterpoint and challenging each other.’ And yet nobody else was in the chamber.
Tom Udall, a freshman Democrat from New Mexico, could not recall seeing a senator change another senator’s mind. “You would really need a good hour or two of extensive exchange among folks that really know the issue,” he said. Instead, a senator typically gives “a prepared speech that’s already been vetted through the staff. Then another guy gets up and gives a speech on a completely different subject.” From time to time, senators of the same party carry on a colloquy—“I would be interested in the distinguished senator from Iowa’s view of the other side’s Medicare Advantage plan”—that has been scripted in advance by aides.

The money race:

Nothing dominates the life of a senator more than raising money. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat, said, “Of any free time you have, I would say fifty per cent, maybe even more,” is spent on fund-raising. In addition to financing their own campaigns, senators participate at least once a week in the Power Hour, during which they make obligatory calls on behalf of the Party (in the Democrats’ case, from a three-story town house across Constitution Avenue from the Senate office buildings, since they’re barred from using their own offices to raise money). Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican, insisted that the donations are never sufficient to actually buy a vote, but he added, “It sucks up time that a senator ought to be spending getting to know other senators, working on issues.”

The hyperpartisanship and posturing:

After C-SPAN went on the air, in 1979, the cozy atmosphere that encouraged both deliberation and back-room deals began to yield to transparency and, with it, posturing. “So Damn Much Money,” a recent book by the Washington Post reporter Robert G. Kaiser, traces the spectacular rise of Washington lobbying to the same period. Liberal Republicans began to disappear, and as Southern Democrats died out they were replaced by conservative Republicans. Bipartisan coalitions on both wings of the Senate vanished. The institutionalist gave way to the free agent, who controlled his own fund-raising apparatus and media presence, and whose electoral base was a patchwork of single-issue groups. Members of both parties—Howard Metzenbaum, the Ohio Democrat; Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican—took to regularly using the Senate’s rules to tie up business for narrowly ideological reasons. The number of filibusters shot up in the eighties and continued to rise in the following decades, as the parties kept alternating control of the Senate and escalating a procedural arms race, routinely blocking the confirmation of executive and judicial appointees. Democrats filibustered Republican nominees to the bench; then Republicans threatened to ban the filibuster in such cases—the so-called “nuclear option.” Older members were perturbed when, in 2004, the Republican Majority Leader, Bill Frist, went to South Dakota to campaign against the Democratic Minority Leader, Tom Daschle (who went on to lose). A few years earlier, such an action would have been unthinkable.

And the roadblock in the way of change: the legislators themselves:

Even if the freshmen Democrats can somehow reform the filibuster next January, the Senate will remain a sclerotic, wasteful, unhappy body. The deepest source of its problems is not rules and precedents but, rather, its human beings, who have created a culture where Tocqueville’s “lofty thoughts” and “generous impulses” have no place.

It's a big article (11,000 words), but well worth the time of anyone interested in politics and wanting to get the feel of things. It's pitch-perfect when it comes to the atmosphere of the Senate and the way it has turned from a deliberative body into a collection of figureheads.

The Senate isn't where decisions are made by people anymore. Corporate and union lobbyists, powerful interest groups, and public posturing have all contributed to a world where the results are nearly pre-ordained. It was perhaps inevitable when political power more and more comes purely in the form of bank accounts.

This Congress has done a lot, but its achievements are all the more remarkable when you consider the extraordinary set of circumstances it took to bring them about. As Packer points out, "The two lasting achievements of this Senate, financial regulation and health care, required a year and a half of legislative warfare that nearly destroyed the body. They depended on a set of circumstances—a large majority of Democrats, a charismatic President with an electoral mandate, and a national crisis—that will not last long or be repeated anytime soon."

So what's the solution?

Many people advocate the elimination of the filibuster entirely, declaring that it's an archaic artifact that allows a determined minority to hold up anything they choose. But I have given it long thought, and I actually think that's a good thing. If a sizable minority of Senators have the support of their constituents and their controlling forces, then maybe they should be able to hold up a piece of legislation indefinitely. It requires a lot of effort and commitment, and that can testify to the strength of the opposition. And if they're wrong and not supported, they pay the electoral penalty and the law gets passed anyway. I know that if the Republicans had tried to privatize Social Security, I would have wanted the Democrats using every filibustery trick in the book to stop it. No one likes the rules when they're in the way, but everyone likes them when they help.

But other rules, like anonymous holds, are clearly idiotic and need to go. There's simply no justification for them, and they're an invitation to blackmail a la Shelby. The same goes for unanimous consent on late hearings. The same goes for customary absences leading to a three-day workweek.

The filibuster is an awkward thing, but it has a reasonable purpose and perhaps a just one. But there are a half-dozen other rules that are just as archaic that have no purpose at all but corruption. Eliminate them!

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