What's Wrong With the Senate: A Definitive Guide

The New Yorker attempts to explain it all

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A lengthy profile of the U.S. Senate by New Yorker writer George Packer is generating waves on liberal blogs. In it, Packer asks a familiar question that's seldom been addressed in such detail: "Just how broken is the Senate?" The answer, even according to senators themselves, is that it's pretty broken. Packer covers the bizarre fifteen-minute scheduling blocks, the three-day work weeks, the fundraising imperatives, the filibustering, the structural barriers, and more. Here's one of the sections that's been floating around the blogosphere:

[Former Senate Majority Leader Tom] Daschle sketched a portrait of the contemporary senator who is too busy to think: "Sometimes, you’re dialling for dollars, you get the call, you've got to get over to vote, you’ve got fifteen minutes. You don’t have a clue what's on the floor, your staff is whispering in your ears, you’re running onto the floor, then you check with your leader--you double check--but, just to make triple sure, there's a little sheet of paper on the clerk's table: The leader recommends an aye vote, or a no vote. So you've got all these checks just to make sure you don’t screw up, but even then you screw up sometimes. But, if you’re ever pressed, 'Why did you vote that way?'--you just walk out thinking, Oh, my God, I hope nobody asks, because I don't have a clue."

Everyone's getting something different from the piece. A sample of the reaction:

  • A Three-Day Workweek? Seriously?  Packer, writes Matt Yglesias, "highlights this issue of time, which I think hasn't been raised before in an adequate way ... The longstanding tradition of congress taking fairly extended 'recesses' so that members can get in touch with their constituents makes a ton of sense, but the newfangled tradition of congress combining extended recesses with three-day workweeks is pernicious."
  • 'Senate Lacks a Clear Identity,' Mori Dinauer at The American Prospect draws out of the piece, which otherwise "doesn't break much new ground." The Senate formed with unclear aspirations to checking public enthusiasm or perhaps imitating the House of Lords. "But even with an identity," continues Dinauer, "Packer makes clear the various archaic rules of the body would remain a formidable obstacle to reform."
  • Senate Not Designed for Inefficiency  The New Republic's Jonathan Chait takes exception to Packer's inclusion of Senator Lamar Alexander's argument that the Senate "was designed to be inefficient."
That's not really the case. The political system as a whole was designed to be inefficient. That's why any bill must gain the ascent of a House elected every two years, a President elected every four years and a Senate elected every six years. The multiple veto points are the designed inefficiency of the Senate. The filibuster is not part of the design. It developed by accident--the Constitution calls for supermajorities in a few limited instances: ratifying treaties and constitutional amendments, overriding presidential vetoes, expelling members and for impeachments.
  • The Proof Is in the Pudding  Libby Spencer at Detroit News' politics blog thinks the money quote from Packer's profile, describing "today's Senate in a nutshell," is the following: "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."
  • Perhaps the Media Are Part of the Problem  Mother Jones's Kevin Drum highlights a section in which New Mexico Senator Tom Udall complains that "Bloggers carry so much influence that many senators have a young press aide dedicated to the care and feeding of online media. News about, by, and for a tiny kingdom of political obsessives dominates the attention of senators and staff, while stories that might affect their constituents go unreported because their home-state papers can no longer afford to have bureaus in Washington." Meanwhile, Senator Dodd agrees that, in going from 11 Connecticut newspaper reporters covering him daily to zero, with DC-centric publications filling the gap, coverage focuses a lot more on conflict. Writes Drum: "The new media environment may have some advantages over the old one, but the old one had a few too. This one is a pretty good example."
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