New York Times columnist Paul Krugman warned today that the U.S. is being "paralyzed by procedure" in ways reminiscent of the collapse of 18th-century Poland. Krugman specifically laments the procedural blocks in the Senate that make it so difficult for anything to get done. But The Washington Post's Ezra Klein argues that the problem is more complicated.
The Senate is two things, Klein explains. It's an institution with set rules, like the filibuster, and it's also a collective of 100 Senators who have to worry about reelection. The problem isn't that the institutional rules are bad or that the individual Senators are bad people. It's that the rules guiding Senate-wide behavior don't match up to the electoral incentives guiding the behavior of individual Senators.
The problem with the Senate is not that you can't get 60 people out of 100 people to agree on something. It's that roughly half the folks will lose any chance at a promotion, and they may even lose their job, if they agree with the other half. Bipartisanship isn't impossible because people disagree on the finer points of American policy, though many of them certainly do. It's impossible because the parties are locked in a zero-sum struggle for control, and you don't gain an advantage if you give the other side a major accomplishment and then tell the American people they really did a good job reaching out to your and your colleagues. That's the equivalent of saying to your employer, "Don't give me a promotion, and in fact, think hard about whether you might want to lay me off next year."
Senatorial rules assume that Senators can act in a bipartisan way, but electoral realities dictate they can't. The result is total deadlock. Klein says we should change the Senate rules to reflect the reality.
This isn't, importantly, an attack on either party. It's good to have a competitive electoral system! But if we're going to give the minority party a reason to want the majority party to fail at governing the country, we can't also give them the power to make the majority party fail at governing the country. We need a legislative system that works alongside our political system, not one that pretends we have a different, more harmonious political system than we really do.