Can the Senate Work Again?

Chris Dodd Thinks So

When it comes to the role and functioning of the United States Senate, my rather dyspeptic views could not be more at odds with those of Chris Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat who is retiring at the end of the year.

I've reached the point where I'd abolish the Senate if I could. It is more profoundly undemocratic than it was when the Founders created it and less genuinely deliberative—problems compounded by a Republican minority's strategy of delay and obstruction.

Dodd, on the other hand, is a second-generation senator (his father Tom served from 1959 to 1971) who reveres the institution. He recently earned a lot of scolding on progressive blogs by defending some of its odd habits and criticizing efforts to reform the filibuster.

"What's the point of having a Senate? If the vote margins are the same as in the House, you might as well close the doors," he told reporters. "Those ideas are normally being promoted by people who haven't been here in the minority and don't understand how the rules, if intelligently used, can help protect against the tyranny of the majority."

When I sat down last week at the Capitol with Dodd to talk about his thirty-six years in Congress, he didn't change my attitude toward the longest-winded legislative body in the world. But he reminded me of something missing in our public life: an ebullient joy about what democratic politics can accomplish.

Far better are the happy warriors than the sour politicians who whine about the indignities democracy inflicts upon the high-minded. Along with his friend, the late Ted Kennedy, Dodd has always been one of the happiest warriors of them all. Both could savor victory and muster humor to stave off the pain of defeat.

"Liberals are only happy when we're agonizing," Dodd says, disarmingly including himself in the category he's criticizing. "But if you're preaching gloom and doom, you're making it easy for the other side. They're preaching gloom and doom, too."

Democrats, he says, make a mistake by complaining constantly about Republican obstruction. "Mitch McConnell is very smart politically," Dodd says, referring to the Senate Republican leader, "but we're giving him credit for what he didn't achieve.... In the midst of it all, there have been some remarkable successes.... We're arguing against ourselves when we say we can't get anything done."

And then he ticks off his party's many accomplishments, including the health-care bill, the financial-reform bill he championed, and a slew of other measures (on employment discrimination, children's health care, an expansion of national service, student-loan reform) that have been largely forgotten.

The Democrats' original sin in this Congress, Dodd believes, was the failure--meaning the Senate Finance Committee's failure--to deliver a health-care bill to the Senate floor during the summer of 2009 in pursuit of what he called the "pipe dream" of substantial Republican support. "We lost all that ground, all of that momentum," he says. "We gave them all this time to define the bill."

In any event, he argues, bipartisanship is vastly overrated. "There's nothing wrong with partisanship," Dodd thunders. "A little more civility would be a good thing, but it was partisanship that created this place." In the early decades of the republic, Congress "was a brawl." Partisanship simply reflects the reality of disagreement in a free society.

But a healthy partisanship does not preclude those from opposite parties treating each other like fellow human beings. And here, he says, all the institutions that brought members together across party lines have deteriorated.

"We've stripped out the socialization," he says. "Members don't know each other, and there's very little respect for each other." And fundraising has become a time-eating obsession. "We have created as much of a barrier to running for public office as when some of those restrictions applied relating to gender, race and property. You've got people now raising money to run in 2014."

As for the filibuster, his solution is simple: "When you filibuster, you filibuster." Make the Senate stay in session, require senators to keep talking, and thereby raise the price of obstruction.

Dodd may be too sentimental about the old Senate. But he's right that politics could use a little more joy and that his own party needs to be a lot less glum. The happiness quotient in the Senate will definitely drop when Dodd leaves, and that really is depressing.

(c) 2010, Washington Post Writers Group



Related: Our Broken Senate, at dotCommonweal

The Politics of Stupidity, by E. J. Dionne Jr.

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As for the filibuster, his solution is simple: "When you filibuster, you filibuster." Make the Senate stay in session, require senators to keep talking, and thereby raise the price of obstruction. -- I very much agree with this: I don't understand why the Democrats (or anyone in the majority who wants to get something passed) don't just let the Republicans filibuster.  If this or that bill is that important, let the other side filibuster and see how long they're willing to do it -- even if it lasts months. 

 

With regard to bringing people together across party lines, encouraging more civility and socialization -- one very simple thing would be to seat people alphabetically rather than by party.  That would force them to talk to each other and be friendly.  Isn't it rather horrible and childish to divide the people up like that, with the parties on different sides of the room?  Parties are not enshrined in the constitution; why should we be indulging them like that?

Brenda, my understanding is that under the current Senate rules, the onus is on the majority to end a filibuster by mustering 60 votes.  Sen. Tom Udall (among others) is pushing for some type of rules reform at the beginning of the next session of Congress.  One proposal is to change the filibuster/cloture rule so that the onus is on the minority to secure and maintain 41 votes. 

 

Another alternative would be to return to the original Senate rules in effect prior to the 1806 Aaron Burr recommendation that somewhat inadvertantly created the filibuster.

Luke -- but another way to end a filibuster is simply to wait until the other side gets tired of talking non-stop.  Even if it goes on for months, if the bill is that important, then they should wait it out.  Otherwise, aren't the Democrats (or whichever party is in that position) basically saying, "The Republicans are stronger than we are, because they care enough to keep talking beyond the length of time that we're willing to wait?"

My understanding of current Senate rules is that there is no longer any such thing as the kind of filibuster Jimmy Stewart made famous in "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington".  There's no requirement placed on the minority to say anything other than they object to ending debate on the measure before the Senate.  The Senate then takes a vote.  As long as the majority can't muster 60 votes, the measure can't be voted on.

In fact, one of the rules reforms being proposed would place greater onus on the minority, for example by requiring 2/5 + 1 votes  (i.e., 41 votes) for the minority to sustain a filibuster.  Under that rule, the minority would have to roll out the cots and stay close to the Senate floor at all times to respond to a possible cloture vote.  They wouldn't be able to fly home to their states, or attend evening fundraisers at Washington hotel ballrooms, etc.  Right now, the burden falls on the majority.

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About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).