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The inefficient Senate

The latest issue of the New Yorker has a lengthy look at the current complaints that the U.S. Senate is broken. Here are some snippets from the article:

“The Senate, by its nature, is a place where consensus reigns and personal relationships are paramount,” Lamar Alexander said. “And that’s not changed.” Which is exactly the problem: it’s a self-governing body that depends on the reasonableness of its members to function. Sarah Binder, a congressional scholar at George Washington University, said, “To have a chamber that rules by unanimous consent—it’s nutty! Especially when you’ve got Jim Bunning to please.”

[snip]

In 1917, Woodrow Wilson, with his wartime legislative agenda blocked by filibusters, forced the Senate to pass Rule XXII, which allowed a two-thirds majority to bring a floor debate to an end with a “cloture” vote. For decades, the rule was rarely used; between 1919 and 1971, there were only forty-nine cloture votes, fewer than one per year. In the seventies and eighties, the annual average rose to about a dozen. (Frustration with this increase led the Senate, in 1975, to lower the threshold for cloture to sixty votes.) In the nineties and early aughts, the average went up to twenty-five or thirty a year, as both parties escalated their use of the filibuster when they found themselves in the minority. After the Republicans lost their majority in 2006, filibusters became everyday events: there were a hundred and twelve cloture votes in 2007 and 2008, and this session Republicans are on target to break their own filibuster record.

[snip]

“They’ll get over it,” Alexander said of the Democrats’ enthusiasm for [reforming the filibuster]. “And they’ll get over it quicker if they’re in the minority next January. Because they’ll instantly see the value of slowing the Senate down to consider whatever they have to say.” He added that the Senate “may be getting done about as much as the American people want done.” The President’s ambitious agenda, after all, has upset a lot of voters, across the political spectrum. None of the Republicans I spoke to agreed with the contention that the Senate is “broken.” Alexander claimed that he and other Republicans were exercising the moderating, thoughtful influence on legislation that the founders wanted in the Senate. “The Senate wasn’t created to be efficient,” he argued. “It was created to be inefficient.”

The piece concludes:

On July 21st, President Obama signed the completed bill. 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.