Everyone is reading and commenting on the George Packer piece on the Senate, and rightly so: there's a lot of good stuff in there. That said, it's sort of a hodgepodge. There's a bit of old fogyism creeping through it, about the overall quality of current Senators compared to the past. That's one thing. A second thing is sort of a general critique of the evolution of the Senate over time, featuring the rise of a staff-heavy Senate; time devoted to fundraising; and more time spent back in the state, all of which combine to produce the demise of personal relationships between Senators. Then there's a third element, which is about partisanship and the use (and/or abuse) of Senate rules in sort of a runaway arms race.
What I think is that these things don't really go together. The first one is, most likely, just not true; the quality of individual Senators now is probably more or less as good as its ever been, and almost certainly higher than it was, say, in Lyndon Johnson's Senate. The second one is true, but it's not necessarily a bad thing. I do think there's probably been a loss of personal relationships, and that's probably bad. But all those eager staffers are a plus, too; the institutional capacity of the Senate is certainly much higher than it was in Lyndon Johnson's time. Of course, it's also true that the capacity needs to have grown, since the government itself is more complex than it was. I'd like to see campaign finance reform that would reduce the time pols spend dialing for dollars, and I'd rather we had a political culture that wasn't as phobic about Potomac Fever, so that Senators could move their families to Washington and spend more time there. But, really, I don't think that those issues are particularly related to current Senate disfunction.
No, the problems in the Senate today are pretty much entirely about the third thing that Packer discusses: partisanship and full exploitation of the Senate rules to create obstacles to the Senate working at all. Packer's story about the banking bill and Senator Corker, I think, is the key one. In that case, it turned out that none of the other problems of the Senate (three day weeks, staff, lack of personal relationships, time absorbed by raising money) mattered at all: when they wanted to Democrats and one mainstream conservative Republican had no trouble at all working together on a bill. But in the end, it turned out that Corker's participation was impossible because party discipline demanded it.
Packer is right to focus, when he does, on the "arms race" aspect of the exploitation of Senate rules. It's not just that the rules that worked in a less partisan era don't work very well in a more partisan era; it's that Republicans (primarily, although hardly exclusively) have chosen to find advantages where they can by using the rules to try as best as possible to bring the Senate to a complete halt. It's the right of the minority to do so, but majorities won't put up with it over the long haul. The status quo is not stable. Change is coming.