Over at the New Yorker, George Packer has written a lengthy think-piece on everyone's favorite dysfunctional deliberative body, the United States Senate. Entitled "The Empty Chamber (Just How Broken Is The Senate?)" Packer's article seeks to address precisely how this prestigious congressional body has gone from world-wide renown to being the equivalent of legislative quicksand.
While the ghost of Senator Charles Sumner might take issue with Packer's argument that the Senate has steadily declined in function and civility since its peak in the 1800s, Packer does make a compelling argument that there has been an erosion in the upper chamber over the past several decades. Among the many points he makes:
- The rules governing the Senate are arcane remnants from a time when the life of a United States Senator was much slower and more deliberative. The same rules and procedures that served to accommodate legislators 200-plus years ago are now being misused (and abused) to stifle debate in the new millennium.
- The slower pace of the Senate was originally envisioned as an antidote to the faster-paced, more partisan atmosphere of the House of Representatives; it was hoped that the hot-button issues would be given a chance to be properly deliberated and considered in this environment. However, Republicans like Lamar Alexander have contorted this to suggest that the Senate "....was created to be inefficient.”
- The hyper-partisanship in the upper chamber has gained alarming momentum in the past three decades, and has made it all-but-impossible for senators to reach across the aisle and find common ground.
- The need to fundraise has - surprise! - robbed senators of the time needed to educate themselves on the bills they're voting on, to forge social and working relationships with each other, and to engage in meaningful exchanges with each other. Furthermore, senators are encouraged to engage in hyper-partisanship in order to appeal to potential donors.
Some of the points Packer raises in his article aren't surprising; it stands to reason that a senator who has to spend ever-greater amounts of time chasing re-election money will therefore have less time to engage in the business of being a senator. It stands to reason that the less time senators and their families spend in DC with one another, and the less they socialize with one another, the less likely they are to find common ground and be willing to work together. It stands to reason that the more senators are forced to play to the extremes of their parties bases, the more difficult it becomes for compromise to be forged.
Some of the points are less obvious, though. For example, Packer notes that the Founders designed it so that each new session of Congress is allowed to set its own rules. The arcane rules and parliamentary procedures that made sense in 1800, but that are now used to grind all legislative business to a halt? They could be revamped and revised to allow for greater productivity and real debate - if only a majority of the senators would actively support such revisions.
The public accountability afforded by the C-Span cameras, which first arrived in 1979, has allowed people across the country to view the World's Greatest Deliberative Body in action - but televising the Senate has also increased heated partisan rhetoric and playing to the cameras, and has helped undermine meaningful give-and-take on the floor.
The Republicans have abused many of those old parliamentary rules and procedures to gum up the system in order to shut down debate on (or kill) legislation they disapprove of - but many long-serving Democrats are hesitant to support doing away with these parliamentary rules, lest the Democrats one day be in the minority again (and in need of those same tools).
Taken in all, Packer paints a frustrating portrait of a chamber that is being held hostage by its own members and a sense of institutional inertia, and there truly seems to be no easy fixes. The losers in all this, of course, are those idealistic lawmakers and their aides who have come to Washington to do the People's Work. And the biggest losers are the People, themselves....