Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Broken Senate?

The next time you hear anyone speak of the Senate as a “deliberative body” (much less “the world’s greatest deliberative body”) pull out George Packer’s terrific piece in this week’s New Yorker. It tells the story, largely in the words of insiders who remember the difference, of how the Senate changed in the space of a generation from a civilized old boys’ club into an ideological Animal House. Packer explains the sad state of Senate decision-making by pointing to the yawning disparity between its present institutional culture and surviving procedural rules hammered out in a more collegial environment. However you explain the present state of the Senate, “deliberation” isn’t a word that comes to mind when you contemplate Packer’s description of today’s frat-boy Senators.

I don’t doubt that the institutional changes Packer describes are real and important in any number of respects. And I’ve long been in favor of changing Senate rules, particularly those that require unanimous consent or a supermajority for it to get on with its legislative business. But I still wonder how much the perception of dysfunction in the Senate owes to the present political demoralization of the liberal community.

Imagine that the Senate were a black box that converted inputs, in the form of the 2008 election returns and post-election polling data, into outputs in the form of enacted legislation. How well would you think the institution has been working over the last eighteen months if you couldn’t see inside?

The first thing you’d notice is, despite majorities that are substantially smaller than those in 1935 and 1966, a Democratic Senate passed two reforms, ObamaCare and comprehensive financial regulation, that are comparable in scope and legislative ambition to the Social Security Act and Medicare. That’s all the more remarkable when you consider how poorly both bills polled while they were being passed. That doesn’t suggest institutional paralysis or partisan deadlock.

But what of major items on the Democratic agenda that didn’t pass, like Cap-and-Trade? Doesn’t the fact that it passed the House over a year ago say something about the institutional incapacity of the Senate?

Well, perhaps something, but not a whole lot. It would be one thing if there were a robust democratic mandate for passing it to which the House responded but the Senate didn’t. Were that so, you’d expect that House Democrats would be running for reelection on their Cap-and-Trade votes. Yet it’s widely predicted that Democrats are going to lose control of the House this November, in no small part because Democratic House members in marginal districts have to answer for their Cap-and-Trade votes. Maybe the Senate dragged its collective heels because it was operating on a sounder interpretation of the mandate Democrats won in 2008?

Yes, the Senate often looks ridiculous, but that's not enough to make it dysfunctional in the context of our political system.  I'll leave for another time the question of whether that says something good about the Senate or something bad about our political system.

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