Monday, August 2, 2010

Broken Senate?

George Packer has an interesting article up at the New Yorker about the (supposedly) broken Senate. Packer's article assumes that the Senate is horribly, horribly broken, and that assumption colors the whole piece, but he does provide a number of details about the legislative process in the contemporary Senate.

Though some on the left might take this piece as another demonstration of the need to get rid of the filibuster, the filibuster doesn't actually take center stage in this article. Indeed, many of the procedural problems the Senate now faces (and it does face some problems of that nature) stem from increased partisan animosities, which cause members of both sides to derail debates and appointments using heretofore obscure procedural moves. Indeed, the attempt on the "progressive" front to destroy the filibuster is itself a symptom of these increased animosities, as a temporarily reigning left-wing majority tries to break any hope of minority resistance.

I think the despairing final paragraph of Packer's article results from a kind of confusion:
The two lasting achievements of this Senate, financial regulation and health care, required a year and a half of legislative warfare that nearly destroyed the body. They depended on a set of circumstances—a large majority of Democrats, a charismatic President with an electoral mandate, and a national crisis—that will not last long or be repeated anytime soon. Two days after financial reform became law, Harry Reid announced that the Senate would not take up comprehensive energy-reform legislation for the rest of the year. And so climate change joined immigration, job creation, food safety, pilot training, veterans’ care, campaign finance, transportation security, labor law, mine safety, wildfire management, and scores of executive and judicial appointments on the list of matters that the world’s greatest deliberative body is incapable of addressing. Already, you can feel the Senate slipping back into stagnant waters.
There seems to be a presumption here that the Senate should be doing something on these issues. The desire for a government capable of responding to national issues is a laudable one. However, sometimes putting forth no plan for certain types of reforms is better than putting together a very bad one. Many of the policy positions of the current Democratic leadership and the president are both unpopular (see the latest polling for Obama on immigration, for example) and have undesirable results.

The Senate can certainly "address" these issues if "addressing" means passing legislation about it. On plenty of these measures, a centrist majority could easily be found; left-wing insistence and right-wing resistance has thus far prevented action on a number of these issues. This lack of action may, especially from a conservative perspective, be desirable, and there is no reason for members of the center-right to cede their convictions to left-wing radicalism. Compromise is only worth so much.

If "addressing" means solving these issues, that's a much taller order. Certainly, the Senate did "address" job creation issues when it passed the stimulus. Its success in doing so has fallen far below the initial estimates of the president and his allies. The successful addressing of issues depends upon having effective ideas that are capable of gaining popular support. Perhaps unfortunately for the republic, no easy procedural mechanisms will ensure that these ideas rise to the top.

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