World’s Greatest Deliberative Body

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:

  1. Archaic rules, such as not allowing committees to hold hearings after 2:00 in the afternoon without unanimous consent.
  2. Senators spending less time in Washington, due primarily to fundraising needs, but also owed to anti-Washington sentiment.
  3. Proliferation of staffers, often “more ideological than their bosses, and less dependent on institutional relationships.”
  4. Lack of actual conversations; Senators never change their minds as a result of the argument of a colleague.
  5. “Tabloid” Hill rags (Roll Call, The Hill, Politico, etc…) that promote conflict; fewer state newspapers covering hometown Senators.
  6. More Senators coming from the House, not from governorships or other positions that would encourage bipartisanship.
  7. Lack of friendships and trust among members (see reasons 2, 4, and 6).
  8. The “Quayle generation.”  In 1981, more than half of the Senate had served less than 6 years.
  9. C-Span, and the new priority of transparency over deal-making.
  10. Proliferation of lobbyists (coinciding with the advent of C-Span).
  11. Liberal Republicans started vanishing.  Southern Democrats died off and were replaced by conservative Republicans.  Each party became more insular.
  12. Filibusters being used for political purposes.
  13. Revolving door from Senate to lobbying firms.
  14. 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.”

Nice.

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32 thoughts on “World’s Greatest Deliberative Body

  1. “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.”

    Hello!
    This could only have been written by a frustated progressive, which is always a good thing. However, like every human endeavor there can be improvements. Here’s some of my suggestions:
    1. Return to electing senators by the state legislative bodies. End the popular election of senators.
    2. Limit senate sessions to six months/year.

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  2. It never ceases to amaze me how many smart people virtually deny the importance of popular will as a hallmark of any democracy, including American-style democracy. Yes, we have checks and balances, but they are only intended to temper some of the excesses of popular will, not make it irrelevant. Electing Senators through state legislatures? Continue rules (including the filibuster in its current form) that halt a democratically-elected majority from accomplishing its agenda? I’m not at all comfortable with such complete anti-majoritarian stances, even at the times when I support the policy end-game.

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    • @Lisa Kramer, people who support electing Senators through state legislatures must really trust their state politicians… I don’t have enough of a handle on Maryland politics to know who it would benefit here, but in North Carolina state-legislature-appointed senators would no doubt be another way that the rest of the state tries to give Charlotte the bad side of every deal.

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      • @William Brafford, Mr. Brafford, you do have a point that I must concede. Contemporary Americans, including those in sundry state senates do not, generally, share my enthusuasium for limited gummint and crippling the consolidating beast. Nor do they even understand my archaic use of language..alas.
        However, human nature is grounded on self interests, consequently based on that (perhaps I’m wrong?) I think I have a better chance to cripple, halt, delay, and possibly defeat those statist/progressive/commie-dem interests that presently dominate the waking thoughts of our mainly incontinent Senate.

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      • @William Brafford, Maryland politicians are, in terms of corruption, not as bad as Louisiana and not as good as Wisconsin. My opposition to repealing the 17th amendment has nothing to do with what that would mean for Maryland – I just don’t like adding another barrier to popular will.

        That, plus, appointment of Senators by state legislatures denied W.J. Bryan of a Nebraska Senate seat. “If it’s good enough for Brady, it’s good enough for me.” :)

        North Carolina legislature is anti-Charlotte? Learn something new every day.

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    • @Lisa Kramer, Lisa, I’m going to guess that you’re ok with the Arizona vote that indicated Arizonians are not real fond of “illegal” Mexicans? Or, how about the recent vote in some state I’ve forgotten where homosexual marriage was shot down by a significant majority?
      I’m no more comfortable with your blessed majoritarianism than I am with most of the gummint forms currently in vogue.
      In fact I’d limit those allowed to vote to American citizens who (1) served in the military in a combat, (2) or own property and pay tax on that property (3) or has been employed for at least two years and pays taxes on the wages earned.! NO ONE ELSE VOTES!

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      • @Robert Cheeks, I made it pretty clear in my post last week about the Perry decision that I’m extremely reluctant – though not 100% opposed in all situations – to overturning a popular vote.

        At least you’re honest about wanting to severely curtail democracy rather than pretending that it’s already the “American way” to throw up endless roadblocks to democracy and make decisions through courts. Personally, I think your restrictions are a bit nutty, but you think my views make me a commie-dem (although, mercifully, you haven’t lumped me in with the Eastern Elite yet).

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        • @Lisa Kramer, Sweetie, I missed your post last week, plus, at my age it’s difficult to keep track of the authors, though I do know a few. I’ll keep an eye on your stuff.
          “A bit nutty…..??” Well, I’ve been called worse and since I lable all you kids to the left of Attilla as “commie-dems”, I like to think I can take and dish it out.
          As far as your ‘progressive’ ideas, yeah, I do think you and your fellows here are ‘nutty.’ Democracy usually leads to the dictatorship, that’s why I’m a republican, a John Randolph of Roanoake republican..and, of course, I’m appalled by all forms of statism. But, I think you’re a ‘nice’ commie-dem. I’ll let you know about ‘eastern, elite commie-dem.’

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    • @Lisa Kramer,
      Where are the Lib Dems?
      I understand your frustration and desire for a more parliamentary, “winner takes all,” electoral system.
      However, the Democratic and Republican party have made it almost impossible to start a third party.
      A question?
      Who was the only presidential candidate that went through the excruciating process to get on the Texas ballot?
      Answer: Bob Barr.
      The Democratic and Republican party both missed the deadline to qualify for the Texas presidential ballot – were they excluded from that ballot – of course not.
      The law does not apply to the two major parties.
      The law in every state is written to ensure their dominance.

      “It never ceases to amaze me how many smart people virtually deny the importance of popular will ”
      Popular will does not agree with your Democratic party or the Republican party.

      I have no trust in the corrupt Democratic politicians you favor, nor do I trust the Republicans.

      All else being equal, I have little interest in giving your favorite pols more power!!!

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      • @cfpete, Ah, you’ve caught me on one of my quirky, Achilles heel issues; despite my desire for more “winner take all” rules, I’m actually pretty supportive of the 2-party system. I say this even though my own brother is a former national co-chair of the Green Party, and this is a very common family debate. I’m fine with reforming ballot access laws, I’d certainly reform campaign funding laws, and I’m very supportive of Instant Runoff Voting, but I draw the line at proportional representation and coalition governments. Those are the true holy grails of third-party advocates. Of all the problems with today’s democracy (and there is no shortage of problems), I just don’t think the 2-party system ranks.

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  3. At risk of sounding self-serving, I wrote a blog post over at my site earlier this year that the commentators here might find interesting.

    It was prompted by another excellent expose on the Senate’s woeful state of affairs, “Mr. Woebegone Goes to Washington: When Did the Senate Become Such a Cynical Place?”, Jessica Senior’s March entry for New York Magazine. As she writes better than Packer I recommend it over the piece that began this discussion, but both come to remarkably similar conclusions. In response to Senior’s disgust with a Senate-turned-House of Representatives, I wrote the following:

    A Few Thoughts on the Senate.
    “T. Greer”. The Scholar’s Stage. 29 May 2010

    Senior seems surprised that the Senate has become a second House of Representatives. She should not be. We have thrown out the institutional checks the framers designed to prevent the Senate from becoming slave to ‘popular fluctuations.’ It was only a matter of time before the norms that maintained the Senate’s dignity were also discarded.

    The institutional check I refer to is the original method by which our senators were chosen. While the members of the House of Representatives were chosen directly by the people, the senators were chosen by the legislatures of the states they represented. Senators were not thought of as representatives of the people, but as delegates from the states. Not unlike today’s diplomats, the only link between these statesmen and the people they represented were the governments the latter had elected.

    This connection was a tenuous one. As the prominence of state governments on the national stage receded over time the number of people comfortable with the role these governments had in selecting their representatives grew smaller. The end result was the Seventeenth Amendment, which brought senatorial elections to their current form.

    The consequences of this change are worth reflection. The amendment is usually championed as a triumph of democracy and direct representation. And so it was, when first implemented. Yet the amendment has not aged well. A century of population growth and technological progress has changed the nature of our political system in ways the original writers of the amendment could not have foreseen. Popular election was supposed to weaken state political machines, reduce corruption, and place the mass of the citizenry upon a commanding height where none could touch them. This has not happened. Corruption on the state level was simply replaced by corruption on the national level. Senatorial elections have became national affairs; the senators who win are those who gain the financial and political support of the corporations, donors, and politicians from the nation’s cashpots. The direct representation promised by the Seventeenth Amendment has proved itself to be illusionary.

    I encourage those participating in this thread to read the rest of my post. Hopefully after reading it none here will have cause to say they have seen no rational arguments for turning the election of senators back to the state legislatures.

    But for the moment this excerpt will do. While I sympathize with the point made by Ms. Kramer and a few others, I do not think democracy has been well served by the 17th. Pure democracy does not fare well when the democrats number in the millions and the representatives must been filtered through the murk of national media and party organizations. This filter has been more damaging to the Republic and her people than the screen of popularly elected state senators ever was.

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  4. It all seems to be part of the consolidation of the 2 parties are ideologically coherent, national entities, along the lines that are common in European politics, which in turn is part of the growth in importance of the federal government relative to the states. Give two ideologically opposed parties an institution like the senate and they’ll do exactly what they’ve done and turn it into a machine for destroying legislation, especially since the American public apparently believes they have an elective dictatorship run by the president and the majority party, which relieves powerful individual senators of any responsibility.

    If we’re going to have British-style consolidated ideological parties where they can’t seriously be expected to compromise, we also need to have Westminster style institutions where the opposition’s power to obstruct the governments program is far less. They can only really cause delays, make the government look stupid, or at the most force government members to defect or abstain, which almost never happens (if it did it would cause a confidence vote and a new election).

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