Fantastic article on the modern Senate by George Packer – it’s a long one, but well worth the full read for those who have the time. For the totally inadequate, bullet-point version, Packer blames the downfall of the Senate as an institution to the following (some familiar, some less familiar) reasons:
- Archaic rules, such as not allowing committees to hold hearings after 2:00 in the afternoon without unanimous consent.
- Senators spending less time in Washington, due primarily to fundraising needs, but also owed to anti-Washington sentiment.
- Proliferation of staffers, often “more ideological than their bosses, and less dependent on institutional relationships.”
- Lack of actual conversations; Senators never change their minds as a result of the argument of a colleague.
- “Tabloid” Hill rags (Roll Call, The Hill, Politico, etc…) that promote conflict; fewer state newspapers covering hometown Senators.
- More Senators coming from the House, not from governorships or other positions that would encourage bipartisanship.
- Lack of friendships and trust among members (see reasons 2, 4, and 6).
- The “Quayle generation.” In 1981, more than half of the Senate had served less than 6 years.
- C-Span, and the new priority of transparency over deal-making.
- Proliferation of lobbyists (coinciding with the advent of C-Span).
- Liberal Republicans started vanishing. Southern Democrats died off and were replaced by conservative Republicans. Each party became more insular.
- Filibusters being used for political purposes.
- Revolving door from Senate to lobbying firms.
- Lunching in the caucus rooms as opposed to Senate dining rooms.
As I said, that short list does not do justice to the piece.
There are, of course, those who don’t think the Senate is broken at all, and that it is operating – as it was intended to – as a check on the passions of the lower chamber. To quote Lamar Alexander (quoted by Packer), “The Senate wasn’t created to be efficient. It was created to be inefficient.” In that case, well done! Sarcasm aside, I’m slightly more respectful of this argument (at least it’s a defensible ideological view) than the other common argument: that those of us frustrated by constant Senate foot-dragging would feel differently if Mitch McConnell were the majority leader. If believing that the Senate should be inefficient is a legitimate point of view, then so is believing that the institution does not solely exist as a roadblock to governing. Not every viewpoint is contingent on which Party holds the gavel.
A few more gems from the article:
“[Jeff] 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.’”
On why Senate lunches were replaced by lunches in caucus rooms, “Why would [Republicans and Democrats] want to have lunch together when they hate each other?”
On the (at the time) cynical portrayal of the 1950s Senate as written in Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent: “But the institution, as depicted by Preminger, still works, in its way: though the deals stink, they get cut. The senators know their colleagues and the rules; they back-stab one another in the lunchroom, then drink cocktails and play cards on Saturday nights. There are no lobbyists, no fund-raisers, no media, no constituents—only senators’ intricate relations with one another. The Senate is its own world.”
And my favorite line from the article: (following the vote on health care reform) “for a moment the chamber’s Tweeting pygmies had become legislative giants.”