Senate Malfunction, What’s Your Dysfunction?

George Packer at The New Yorker:


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.

While senators are in Washington, their days are scheduled in fifteen-minute intervals: staff meetings, interviews, visits from lobbyists and home-state groups, caucus lunches, committee hearings, briefing books, floor votes, fund-raisers. Each senator sits on three or four committees and even more subcommittees, most of which meet during the same morning hours, which helps explain why committee tables are often nearly empty, and why senators drifting into a hearing can barely sustain a coherent line of questioning. All this activity is crammed into a three-day week, for it’s an unwritten rule of the modern Senate that votes are almost never scheduled for Mondays or Fridays, which allows senators to spend four days away from the capital. Senators now, unlike those of several decades ago, often keep their families in their home states, where they return most weekends, even if it’s to Alaska or Idaho—a concession to endless fund-raising, and to the populist anti-Washington mood of recent years. (When Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House, in 1995, he told new Republican members not to move their families to the capital.) Tom Daschle, the former Democratic leader, said, “When we scheduled votes, the only day where we could be absolutely certain we had all one hundred senators there was Wednesday afternoon.”

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.”

In June, 2009, top aides to Max Baucus, whose Finance Committee was negotiating the health-care-reform bill, took time to meet with two health-care lobbyists, who themselves were former Baucus aides. (Baucus received more than a million dollars from the industry for his 2008 reëlection campaign.) That month, according to Common Cause, industry groups were spending $1.4 million a day to lobby members of Congress. Udall, speaking of the corrosive effect of fund-raising and lobbying, said, “People know it in their heart—they know this place is dominated by special interests. The over-all bills are not nearly as bold because of the influence of money.”

Daschle sketched a portrait of the contemporary senator who is too busy to think: “Sometimes, you’re dialling for dollars, you get the call, you’ve got to get over to vote, you’ve got fifteen minutes. You don’t have a clue what’s on the floor, your staff is whispering in your ears, you’re running onto the floor, then you check with your leader—you double check—but, just to make triple sure, there’s a little sheet of paper on the clerk’s table: The leader recommends an aye vote, or a no vote. So you’ve got all these checks just to make sure you don’t screw up, but even then you screw up sometimes. But, if you’re ever pressed, ‘Why did you vote that way?’—you just walk out thinking, Oh, my God, I hope nobody asks, because I don’t have a clue.”

Aides, at the elbows of senators as they shuttle between their offices and the Capitol, have proliferated over the past few decades, and they play a crucial role. Lamar Alexander, who has an office of fifty people, pointed out that staff members, who are younger and often more ideological than their bosses, and less dependent on institutional relationships, tend to push senators toward extremes. Often, aides are the main actors behind proposed legislation—writing bills, negotiating the details—while the senator is relegated to repeating talking points on Fox or MSNBC.

One day in his office, Udall picked up some tabloids from his coffee table and waved them at me. “You know about all these rags that cover the Hill, right?” he said, smiling. There are five dailies—Politico, The Hill, Roll Call, CongressDaily, and CQ Today—all of which emphasize insider conflict. The senators, who like to complain about the trivializing effect of the “24/7 media,” provide no end of fodder for it. The news of the day was what Udall called a “dust-up” between Scott Brown, the freshman Massachusetts Republican, and a staffer for Jim DeMint, the arch-conservative from South Carolina; the staffer had Tweeted that Brown was voting too often with the Democrats, leading Brown to confront DeMint on the Senate floor over this supposed breach of protocol. Bloggers carry so much influence that many senators have a young press aide dedicated to the care and feeding of online media. News about, by, and for a tiny kingdom of political obsessives dominates the attention of senators and staff, while stories that might affect their constituents go unreported because their home-state papers can no longer afford to have bureaus in Washington. Dodd, who came to the Senate in 1981 and will leave next January, told me, “I used to have eleven Connecticut newspaper reporters who covered me on a daily basis. I don’t have one today, and haven’t had one in a number of years. Instead, D.C. publications only see me through the prism of conflict.” Lamar Alexander described the effect as “this instant radicalizing of positions to the left and the right.”

Sandy Levinson:

Everyone should read George Packer’s piece in the current New Yorker (though it’s possible you need to be subscriber to get it), on “The Empty Chamber: Just how broken is the Senate”? The answer is very. The filibuster is only part of the problem. The article begins with the lunatic Senate Rule XXVI, paragraph 5, which requires unanimous consent for any committees to hold hearings after two in the afternoon when the Senate is in session. If senators were in fact required to be in the chamber, this would pass the minimum rationality test. But, since they are not, it is truly and utterly lunatic, serving only to give yet another arrow to obstructionists who want to destroy the capacity of the Senate to operate (and, most certainly, to engage in the kind of oversight for which committee hears are necessary). Then there are holds…. Packer also focuses a lot on the personalities of the people (particularly hard-right Republicans).

Packer sugggests that there is very little hope for the “constitutional option” to change the filibuster rule at the beginning of the next session, since too many senior Democrats like it (so they can make sure that Republicans can’t pass their own programs when the time comes).

No sane country designing a constitution today would establish an institution like the United States Senate. The fact that we are suffer under it is the best illustration of what political scientists call “path dependance,” the ability of bad decisions in the past (recall that James Madison hated the “Great Compromise” that brought us the Senate, which should give reverential “originalists” at least some pause, or, at least, they should explain why the Senate is any more legitimate than the 3/5 Compromise that entrenched the power of slaveowners, the other “Great Compromise” that made the Constitution possible).

Matthew Yglesias

Heather Horn at The Atlantic with the round-up

Jonathan Bernstein:

Everyone is reading and commenting on the George Packer piece on the Senate, and rightly so: there’s a lot of good stuff in there.  That said, it’s sort of a hodgepodge.  There’s a bit of old fogyism creeping through it, about the overall quality of current Senators compared to the past.  That’s one thing.  A second thing is sort of a general critique of the evolution of the Senate over time, featuring the rise of a staff-heavy Senate; time devoted to fundraising; and more time spent back in the state, all of which combine to produce the demise of personal relationships between Senators.  Then there’s a third element, which is about partisanship and the use (and/or abuse) of Senate rules in sort of a runaway arms race.

What I think is that these things don’t really go together.  The first one is, most likely, just not true; the quality of individual Senators now is probably more or less as good as its ever been, and almost certainly higher than it was, say, in Lyndon Johnson’s Senate.  The second one is true, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.  I do think there’s probably been a loss of personal relationships, and that’s probably bad.  But all those eager staffers are a plus, too; the institutional capacity of the Senate is certainly much higher than it was in Lyndon Johnson’s time.  Of course, it’s also true that the capacity needs to have grown, since the government itself is more complex than it was.  I’d like to see campaign finance reform that would reduce the time pols spend dialing for dollars, and I’d rather we had a political culture that wasn’t as phobic about Potomac Fever, so that Senators could move their families to Washington and spend more time there.  But, really, I don’t think that those issues are particularly related to current Senate disfunction.

David Frum at Frum Forum:



–>But I want to dissent from Packer’s main thesis – which is that it is the defects of the Senate that have stalled the Obama agenda.

On July 21st, President Obama signed the completed bill. 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. Two days after financial reform became law, Harry Reid announced that the Senate would not take up comprehensive energy-reform legislation for the rest of the year. And so climate change joined immigration, job creation, food safety, pilot training, veterans’ care, campaign finance, transportation security, labor law, mine safety, wildfire management, and scores of executive and judicial appointments on the list of matters that the world’s greatest deliberative body is incapable of addressing. Already, you can feel the Senate slipping back into stagnant waters.

That seems wrong on 2 grounds:

1) A lot of the Obama agenda has passed, actually.

2) To the extent that the agenda has not passed, the causes are bigger than the slow motion of the Senate. Look again at George Packer’s list of stalled initiatives. On how many is the American public clamoring for immediate action? On how many is the Obama agenda on the wrong side of public opinion altogether?

Like all presidents who win a big national election, Barack Obama wanted to whip as many measures through Congress as fast as possible But it’s not “obstructionism” for the Senate to decline to act like the British House of Commons, enacting whatever it pleases the chief executive to propose. There’s a big difference between the Senate of the 1950s refusing session after session to consider civil rights legislation backed by the overwhelming majority  – and the Senate of the 2010s declining to try for the fourth time in 10 years to shove through an immigration amnesty that Americans do not want.

Packer cites job creation as an area of inaction. I suppose he’s referring to the much-discussed “second stimulus” that dwindled into a tiny package of small-business tax measures. But surely the failure of the FIRST stimulus to deliver the promised results is the real culprit here, not the otiose procedures of the U.S. Senate?

Packer himself does not express this view, but many of the liberal blogs seem to take the view that once a president wins an election, his duty to persuade the country somehow adjourns for the next four years. That is not true, and it should not be true. If a president can mobilize the country behind an idea, it’s amazing how the filibusters will fade away. Look at how Republicans opted to step out of the way of the Sonia Sotomayor appointment or unemployment insurance extension. If the president cannot mobilize, he will fail. The Senate may be one of the more visible manifestations of that failure. But don’t mistake the manifestation for the cause.

Ross Douthat:

Liberal commentators often point out that this White House’s approval ratings — and, by extension, its legislative agenda — are hostages to the unemployment rate. That’s true, up to a point. But it’s also true that the Obama White House placed a bet, on the policy substance and politics alike, when it made the stimulus package the centerpiece of its response to the recession. And having lost that bet, they’ve arguably been fortunate that more of their legislative agenda hasn’t been derailed. Fair or unfair, that’s just how politics works: There was never a world where Congress was going to pass the stimulus bill and health care reform and financial regulation and cap and trade and immigration reform, all in the teeth of a persistent 9-to-10 percent unemployment rate. The procedures of the Senate have been the mechanism whereby particular pieces of liberal legislation stalled and died, but the real causes of those defeats run much deeper than the filibuster.

David Broder at WaPo:

Earlier this week, as the Senate went through the motions of debating Elena Kagan’s nomination to a Supreme Court seat that almost certainly will be hers, readers of the New Yorker could review journalist George Packer’s masterful article “The Empty Chamber,” tracing the decline and fall of that same Senate.

Packer shares with thousands of citizens across the country what every reporter who covers the Capitol knows: that the public disdain for Congress, measured in record-low approval scores in polls, is mirrored by the frustration of the members of both parties who have to serve and bear the scorn.

I heard that frustration over lunch one day last week from a conservative Republican senator with three years of seniority. He was bitterly disappointed that he did not find the collegial, challenging body that his predecessor had described to him — or the cross-party friendship that Vice President Biden had told him he once enjoyed in his travels with a Republican counterpart from the senator’s own state.

Packer does as good a job as I have ever read of tracing the forces that have brought the Senate to its low estate. But he does not quite pinpoint the crucial factor: the absence of leaders who embody and can inculcate the institutional pride that once was the hallmark of membership in the Senate.

The Senate was designed not as a representative, small-d democratic body, but as a deliberately minuscule assemblage, capable of taking up the most serious national challenges and dealing with them appropriately because of the perspective and insulation provided by its lengthy terms and diverse constituencies.

Its best leaders have been men who were capable, at least on occasion, of rising above partisanship or parochial interest and summoning the will to tackle overriding challenges in a way that almost shamed their colleagues out of their small-mindedness.

Many forces — from the money chase, to the party realignments, to the intrusiveness of 24-hour media — have weakened the institutional bonds of that Senate. But it is the absence of the ethic embodied and enforced by its leaders that is most crippling.

In Broder’s mind, the “crucial factor” is simply personal. There are no leaders. In the old days, there were leaders, now there aren’t. The solution is to somehow get more leaders in the Senate who can inculcate their members with institutional pride, then things will return to the way they worked forty years ago. In other words, Broder looks at data like this:

…and sees an institution that has simply had fewer and fewer good leaders as time has gone on.

A more realistic analysis holds that the South’s post-Civil War racial Apartheid system created a highly unusual arrangement in which political parties were not sorted out ideologically — some of the most right-wing members of Congress were Democrats, and many progressives were Republicans. In that atmosphere, party ties had a very weak hold on individual members, especially Senators. Thus it was possible for social norms to encourage cooperation and limit the use of the filibuster to very rare occasions, usually involving civil rights.

A few days ago, I made an analogy to baseball. Suppose teams were allowed to put two extra players in the field in the wanted, but the social expectation was that they’d do so only rarely, when they really needed to get an out. You might be able to enforce a norm like that in a family picnic softball game. But if that were the rule in Major League Baseball, eventually every team would be playing 11 fielders all the time.

Two factors have made bipartisan cooperation impossible. One is ideology. Zero, or almost-zero, Democrats shared George W. Bush’s goal of transforming Social Security from a social insurance program into a network of individually held, defined-contribution retirement accounts. Very few Republicans shared Barack Obama’s goals of providing universal health insurance and limiting carbon dioxide emissions. Moreover, for those who might share such goals, they face strong incentives to stay in line with their party in the form of potential primary challenges and sheer partisan incentive. If Republicans gave Obama bipartisan support, then Obama’s policies would become popular, as would Obama, which would make it much harder for Republicans to retake the majority.

So even if the institutionalist analysis of what went wrong is true — and I’m deeply suspicious of analyses that revolve around the premise that people had more moral fiber back in the good old days — there’s no solution. They’re asking Senators to act in direct contravention of their own political interest. As Jon Tester, an opponent of filibuster reform, says, “I think we need to look to ourselves more than changing the rules.”

Greg Sargent on Broder:

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume leadership is the problem. Shouldn’t we say which leaders are to blame?

The words “Mitch McConnell” don’t appear in Broder’s article. The words “Harry Reid,” however, do appear in passing, when Broder writes that Reid “threw in the towel on energy legislation.” Broder points to this as another sign of Senate dysfunction. But he doesn’t say anything about the lockstep GOP opposition to energy legislation that was partly responsible for forcing Reid to throw in the towel.

Yes, Republicans said Dems were to blame for GOP opposition to energy reform because Dems didn’t do this, that or the other thing. Maybe Broder agrees with this. Maybe he thinks Republican opposition was indefensible. The point is, he doesn’t say.

Look: There’s evidence Republicans pursued a pre-conceived strategy designed to deny Obama bipartisan cooperation solely to prevent Dems from winning major victories, and to grind the Senate to a halt to make Dems look like ineffective leaders. Never mind the fact that filibustering is at historic highs. McConnell himself all but copped to this strategy, telling Adam Nagourney that it was “critical” for Republicans to remain unified against health care reform because if it were bipartisan, the public might be more inclined to support it.

More recently, McConnell said he’d be willing to compromise during the next cycle, but only if Obama decides to change course and pursue a “center right” agenda. That doesn’t sound like a real compromise offer. Does it?

This is the sort of thing that should outrage Broder, given his nostalgia for a more collegial time. If Broder has railed about this in the past, he certainly doesn’t do so with any regularity.

Maybe Broder doesn’t think Republicans are mainly to blame for the current state of affairs. Maybe it’s all Dems’ fault. Fine: If that’s the case, let’s hear it, and let’s hear why. The point is that the Senate’s dysfunction is an enormous problem that could conveivably have an impact on the fate of our planet. It’s fair to expect a columnist with the institutional knowledge Broder possesses, and the respect he enjoys, to take a real stand on who’s really to blame for what’s happening.

UPDATE: Lisa Kramer at The League



Filed under Legislation Pending

2 responses to “Senate Malfunction, What’s Your Dysfunction?

  1. Pingback: Master of puppets? : Post Politics: Political News and Views in Tennessee

  2. Pingback: What We’ve Built This Weekend « Around The Sphere

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