Tuesday, August 3, 2010

That Packer Article on the Senate

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.


  1. Imagine that the Senate were a black box these last 18 months that converted inputs, in the form of the 2008 election returns and post-election polling data, into outputs in the form of enacted legislation. How well would you think the institution has been working over the last eighteen months if you couldn’t see inside?

    The first thing you’d notice is, despite majorities that are substantially smaller than those in 1935 and 1966, a Democratic Senate passed two reforms, ObamaCare and comprehensive financial regulation, that are comparable in scope and legislative ambition to the Social Security Act and Medicare. That’s all the more remarkable when you consider how poorly both bills polled while they were being passed. That doesn’t suggest institutional paralysis or partisan deadlock to me.

    It would be one thing if there were a robust democratic mandate for passing the Democratic agends to which the House responded by passing things like Cap-and-Trade but the Senate didn't. Were that so, you’d expect that House Democrats would be running for reelection on their Cap-and-Trade votes. Yet it’s widely predicted that Democrats are going to lose control of the House this November, in no small part because Democratic House members in marginal districts have to answer for their Cap-and-Trade votes.

    This is one more case where institutional dysfunction is in the eye of the beholder.

  2. We interrupt our reading of Packer's article for this interim report: Jonathan, your smart take on Packer's theses reminds me why I don't like to read book or movie reviews (or, I guess, magazine article reviews). My New Yorker arrived today; I read the table of contents and was looking forward to reading Packer's article at end of work day. Then I read your post; then, this evening, I picked up the New Yorker and thought (before self-censoring) something to the effect of "the hell with this, I already know what's right/wrong with it." Superego kicked in, and I started the article, and having just paused where Packer starts comparing the assorted senators to zoo animals, I must say that explicitly argued theses (which I haven't got to yet) are not everything. The narrative opening scenes -- recounting the late-March refusal to consent to committee meetings after 2:30 p.m., the senators speaking to an empty chamber,the HCR reconciliation bill vote-a-rama -- are a finely wrought theater of the absurd. The overwhelming message will clearly be that the Senate is broken broken broken. The component parts of that argument may not all have to be on target for that uber-message to come across with force. Of course, that could be a recipe for sophistry or plain wrongheadedness -- but so far I doubt it. The Senate is broken. You can see it by watching it in action. That impression, I suspect, will strike deep, and move the debate -- and move the process you suggested must happen with your assertion that the Senate as is is unsustainable. Now why don't I shut up and read.

  3. p.s. I think there's a bit of false equivalence in the article. Packer suggests that Democrats in the minority were as bad on judicial holds as Republicans. They weren't.


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