Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Senate Is Not the House

I haven't yet read Jennifer Senior's long article on the Senate (and I admit I was put off by her description of John McCain as one of the Senate's "ordinarily productive legislators," since McCain, outside of campaign finance reform, is not in fact known as a productive legislator at all).  But I have read Matt Yglesias's response, and I can comment on his prescription for reform in the Senate:
So the obvious way to improve things is just to adopt more House-style procedural rules. Strengthen the leadership vis-a-vis the individual members, make it more majoritarian, etc. The House is hardly perfect, so this would hardly solve all problems, but it does solve many problems by—in essence—cutting down on the number of parties needed to negotiate something. Stronger leadership both makes it easier to do partisan bills without silly buy-offs, and also makes it easier to forge bipartisan deals by getting the key players into a room. The highly individualistic nature of the Senate is anachronistic—a legacy of a different period in American life. We have a partisan politics these days, and what we need are political institutions that fit that paradigm.
What's worth pointing out here is that while the House has not always had strong party leadership and been run by the majority party, it always has had stronger leaders and weaker individual Members than the Senate.  During the bulk of the twentieth century, the strong leaders in the House were committee chairs, not party leaders -- but they were still strong leaders.  In fact, the reforms of 1959-1975 didn't just shift power up to party leaders; it also shifted influence down to subcommittee chairs (and away from committee chairs, and of course eventually strongly away from committee ranking member)..

The bottom line is that because of relatively homogeneous districts and the large size of the House, individual Members are willing to trade in their very small influence over most issues for a somewhat larger influence on a narrow set of issues.  That yields hierarchical government in the House.  Senators, with a smaller chamber and with very diverse interests, are not willing to make that trade.  Nothing about the current partisan situation has really changed that incentive structure, and so the Senate is still going to resist becoming a hierarchical institution.

That's not to say that Senate rules are working well today; I think there's good evidence that some reform would be a good idea.  But that reform needs to be designed with the fundamental structure of the Senate in mind, or else Senators, majority and minority, won't accept it.  The Senate doesn't want to become just like the House, and no outsiders are going to convince a majority of Senators to make that happen. 


  1. Under what scenario is meaningful Senate reform likely?

    An election that reduces the Democratic majority to 50 or 51 would give the largest incentive, but changing the rules (easiest at the very start of the term) would then require perfect unanimity.

    More Democrats means less unanimity needed but also less incentive for change.

    Would virtually all Democratic senators really vote together on a rules change?

  2. Great post. I think the question that most needs to be answered by those making the argument that the Senate needs reform is "What's the purpose of the Senate?" The NY Magazine article implies that the purpose of the Senate should be to slow down the legislative process to allow for all the debate needed to form the best legislation. It's supposed to be the cooling saucer. The current problem, Senior states, is that Senators never listen to one another, never debate on the floor, and spend their free time raising money for their next race.

    Yglesias says that the Senate's purpose should be to pass legislation. Given that we've gone from a de-facto four-party system to a two-party system, the Senate needs to change to reflect this new partisan atmosphere. But you're right that Senators--at least the vast majority of them elected before 2006--don't want the Senate to be the House. But the 1/3 of the Senate elected and appointed in the past four years sound like they might want to give a House-like system a try.

  3. As a legislative body what purpose can the Senate have besides passing legislation?

    Six year Senate terms were intended to allow Senators to sway a little less with the wind than their House brethren. They work. The Senate does change more slowly than the House, common rhetoric notwithstanding. The Senate is a "cooling saucer"* with or without reform.

    * I am beginning to hate that probably apocryphal not-quite-a-quote. To my knowledge neither Madison nor Washington actually used the term. People with an agenda who add patina to their arguments by digging up mythical stories are ANNOYING.

  4. I suppose there are two options: Either the Senate could pass *good* legislation, or it could pass legislation *quickly*.

    If you have faith in bipartisanship and believe that the best ideas always lie between the two extremes (like most media pundits and a certain President believe), then those two ideas are mutually exclusive. What counts as "good" legislation always includes compromise and the best ideas from both parties. "Good" legislation takes time.

    If, however, you have faith in your party's platform, then "quick" and "good" legislation are one-in-the-same for the majority party. The closer a piece of legislation is to your vision for the country, the better it is. And if it can be passed quickly with a partisan majority, so be it.

    The first scenario demands a Senate of debate, discussion, weak leadership, and bipartisanship. The second demands a Senate that gives the leadership the power to implement their platform--Turning it into another House of Representatives. I get the feeling that the older Senators prefer the former, while the newer members prefer the latter.

  5. "a Senate of debate, discussion, weak leadership, and bipartisanship"

    Is that an option? How do we get such a Senate?

    If the present Senate was even remotely like that I could follow your argument, but it isn't so I am puzzled.

  6. That Senate only exists in the minds of Barack Obama, Robert Byrd, Chris Dodd, Pete Dominici, et al. That's what the Senate used to be, according to those men, and what it should strive for.

    In my opinion, the scrambling of the political coalititions has made that Senate an impossibility.


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