Our broken Senate

George Packer's article on the Senate in the August 9 New Yorker, "The Empty Chamber," is a wide-ranging, disillusioning, and grimly entertaining study of the dysfunctional U.S. Senate at work. It's also a hot topic on political blogs this week. (See here, here, and here, for example.) Obviously, not everyone Packer spoke to agreed that the Senate is in sorry shape. (The only thing everyone seemed to agree on was the irritating intractability of Kentucky's Jim Bunning, whose universally bad reputation is a running gag in the piece.) Those Republicans who spoke to Packer tended to insist that the Senate is working exactly as it should. He quotes Lamar Alexander proposing that the Senate may be getting done about as much as the American people want done.

Alexander claimed that he and other Republicans were exercising the moderating, thoughtful influence on legislation that the founders wanted in the Senate. The Senate wasnt created to be efficient, he argued. It was created to be inefficient.

Jonathan Chait responded to that by illustrating what it looks like when Alexander exerts his moderating, thoughtful influence on debate. Here's an example of why Packer calls the Senate "broken":

Seventy-six nominees for judgeships and executive posts have been approved by committees but, because of blocks, havent come up for a vote in the full Senate, leaving courtrooms idle and jobs unfilled across the upper levels of the Obama Administration. (The Democrats also practiced the art of blocking nominees during the Bush Administration.) Theres often no objection to the individual being blocked: after an eight-month hold, Martha Johnson, nominated to run the General Services Administration, was confirmed 960. On an issue like health-care reform, when the objection was substantive, Republicans ransacked Riddicks Senate Procedure for every conceivable way to delay a debate and vote. Judd Gregg even sent a memo on stalling tactics to his Republican colleagues. Tom Coburn demanded the reading aloud of an entire seven-hundred-and-sixty-seven-page amendment proposed by Bernie Sanders, the Vermont socialist; Senate clerks, working in half-hour shifts, were three hours into the chore when Sanders withdrew the amendment in frustration.

The point is not that Republicans are much more dastardly than Democrats would be (and have been) in a reversal of power; the point is that the rules have been perverted so far beyond their original intent that loopholes and exceptions have become the new standards. "Under [Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell," Packer writes, "Republicans have consistently consumed as much of the Senates calendar as possible with legislative maneuvering. The strategy is not to extend deliberation of the Senates agenda but to prevent it." McConnell wouldn't talk to Packer, but he did speak to the New York Times, and Packer quotes from this article:

To the extent that they want to do things that we think are in the political center and would be helpful to the country, well be helpful, Mr. McConnell said of the Democrats. To the extent they are trying to turn us into a Western European country, we are not going to be helpful.

"The political center" McConnell talks about doesn't seem to have a whole lot to do with what actual vote tallies demonstrate. But being centrist isn't his job; representing the people who live in his state (ostensibly) is. Republican senators all told Packer that obstructing Obama's agenda is precisely what "the American people" want them to do. (They never say "my constituents"; always "the American people" -- or, in McCain-Palin campaign parlance, "real Americans.") But if they really believed that were true, they'd boast openly about their manipulation of Senate rules. They would want their constituents to know just exactly what it takes for them to keep even something like financial reform from moving forward. And instead of deploying cowardly "secret holds," senators like Alabama's Richard Shelby would be holding press conferences to publicize all the appointments they were single-handedly holding up for no reason at all. Obviously that's not the public image any politician wants to project. In fact you may recall that GOP representatives spent much of the health-care-reform debate protesting that Democrats were violating the rules (even pretending reconciliation was the hated "nuclear option" in order to make the Democrats look like hypocritical bullies). However committed they are to obstructing the Obama agenda, Republicans seem to realize that "the American people" prefer to believe that their representatives in Congress play fair, with the utmost respect for the rules of parliamentary debate and total contempt for "partisanship." (How "the American people" have managed to maintain that illusion is another question -- but you won't have much innocence left if you read this article.) The big question Packer's article poses is, can the Senate be reformed? Can senators represent their constitutents in ways they can actually be proud of? He seems pessimistic. Are you any more hopeful?

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

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