Let's Be Realistic: The Senate Is Almost as Broken as the House

Immigration bill or not, both chambers continue to be bastions of tribalism.
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Is the Gang of Eight a beacon of hope or a strange anomaly? (Reuters)

Much of the commentary on Washington lately has been about the contrast between the functional Senate and the hopeless House.

There is good reason for this, of course. The Senate is on its way to passing a sweeping immigration bill with a generous supermajority supporting it. The "Gang of Eight" has performed in an exemplary fashion, despite the understandably strong views and different motives of its members; whenever an impasse occurred, other problem-solving senators stepped up to find a solution. Senators of both parties -- all the Democrats, and a number of the Republicans -- have decided not to make the perfect, if there is such a thing, the enemy of the good.

Meantime, the House has careened from one disastrous embarrassment to another, including a rare trifecta of dysfunction in the space of barely more than a week: the excruciating meltdown of comity and the regular order on the Homeland Security appropriations bill; the illegal and extreme antiabortion bill that passed the House, punctuated by cringe-worthy statements from the likes of Republican Reps. Trent Franks and Michael Burgess; and the farm-bill disaster.

When I wrote about the 112th Congress in Foreign Policy, the editors entitled the piece "Worst. Congress. Ever." I got a lot of feedback from people saying things like, "C'mon, the worst ever? What about the period right before the Civil War?" I responded, "You are right. Isn't it comforting to be compared to the period right before the Civil War?" If things keep going this way in the House, the 113th Congress will make the 112th look productive by comparison.

If it avoids that ignominy, it will be because of the functionality we see in the Senate. But let's be realistic about that; things looked really promising after the 2012 elections. The Senate acted in a broadly bipartisan way at the 11th hour to avoid a fiscal-cliff disaster; provided huge supermajorities for aid for Hurricane Sandy and the Violence Against Women Act; and showed signs, after the ballyhooed dinners President Obama had with groups of senators, of finding common ground on a broader fiscal package.

But then came the failure to garner 60 votes on a commendable and restrained bill to tighten background checks on gun purchases, with cosponsor Pat Toomey, R-Pa., acknowledging that several of his GOP colleagues couldn't bring themselves to back something supported by the president, showing tribalism is still alive and kicking in the Senate. The continuing misuse of holds, filibusters, and filibuster threats across an array of executive and judicial nominations show that mass obstruction remained the modus operandi of the Senate minority. And after Obama took the first, second, and third steps to move the Senate toward that bipartisan fiscal bargain, putting Social Security and Medicare changes on the table that are deeply unpopular with the Democratic base, the response from his Republican interlocutors has been all take and no give, doing nothing except demanding more give on the president's part.

In other words, outside of immigration -- and despite an election Obama won handily, with Republicans suffering unexpected Senate setbacks -- it has been more tribal than cooperative. It is pretty obvious why immigration has been different. Lindsey Graham said bluntly what many other party-minded Senate Republicans feel: that the failure to pass immigration reform will send the GOP into a demographic death spiral. But it is also true that some Senate Republicans are focusing on solving problems. If they can't convince more of their colleagues to mend their ways, or at least calibrate better, the Senate may melt down in July over the filibuster rule, damaging deeply its post-immigration role.

As for the House, the farm-bill vote was particularly sobering. Despite commendable bipartisanship in the Agriculture Committee, the driving need to pass a farm bill, and the passionate pleas of Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, seven current and former committee chairs spurned him, as did two Appropriations subcommittee chairs with their own bills to manage, and voted against the bill, Politico reported. They joined 53 other Republicans who gave the finger to their collective leadership.

The fundamental reason the bill failed was that Majority Leader Eric Cantor actively and successfully pushed a punitive and destructive amendment adding a work requirement for food-stamp recipients that fractured the fragile bipartisan coalition of support for the bill. Most astonishing, perhaps, was that even after adding a bevy of such amendments, Cantor still could not garner enough conservative support for the bill.

That tells us that leaders in the House majority have little capacity to lead, to persuade or bludgeon their members to do what they would otherwise be reluctant to do. Jonathan Bernstein at Salon has said that blaming Speaker John Boehner for that reality is misplaced; Boehner's strategy of leading from behind is the most effective one he could employ. He is right, and the fact is that Boehner's passive-aggressive approach did work to get the House to deal with the fiscal cliff, Hurricane Sandy, and the Violence Against Woman Act.

But the votes on the farm bill show that the House majority's problems go beyond the fringe players who now make up a major bloc in the caucus. When committee chairs stick it to their own leaders and peers, it suggests emerging semi-anarchy. That will pose a challenge soon on immigration. But it may pose a more significant -- and potentially disastrous -- challenge when we hit the wall in the fall on appropriations bills and then on the debt ceiling.

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Norm Ornstein is a correspondent for The Atlantic, a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal, and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.  More

Ornstein served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also serves as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future; The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann; and, most recently the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann.

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