Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Place Where Progress Goes To Die

Over the past few years something has become increasingly clear to me: more than anything else, the rules of the Senate are to blame for government's legislative inadequacy.  That's a pretty sweeping statement, so let me explain.  The legislative branch has always had problems getting things done, but three important reasons dealing with the Senate have really killed off the idea of a creative and dynamic government.

1. The majority is always up for grabs.  Throughout much of our nation's history, the legislative branch has been dominated by one party.  In such a situation, the minority has no chance of reclaiming the majority, and so plays for policy influence.  A strategy of total obstruction by the minority party would reduce bargaining power and result in outcomes farther away from their ideal policy.  These days, however, the majority is always up for grabs: party identification is down and the electorate contains a massive group of independents who simply ping-pong back and forth between parties.  A strategy of total obstruction now makes sense.  If a party holds out in opposition for a little while (giving up policy influence), it will soon find itself in the majority, able to pursue its own ideal policies.  Why settle for nudging policy a bit when you can wait a few years and then run the whole show?  This new incentive for obstruction really matters for the Senate, where obstruction opportunities are legion.

2. Parliamentary system with a supermajority requirement.  Everyone knows about the 60 vote requirement in the Senate.  In the past the idea of the Senate as a "cooling saucer," a less-partisan filter for impetuous public opinion, made sense.  Political parties used to be ideologically diverse, with many shifting coalitions based on geography and ideology.  This flux and uncertainty made a strategy of total obstruction impossible.  But in recent decades, our political parties have changed to resemble those of a parliamentary system, with absolute loyalty among legislators and uniform strategies.  The problem is that the senate institutions have not shifted accordingly.  There's a reason parliamentary regimes operate on majority rule--to do otherwise would prevent anything from getting accomplished.  It's nice to think that our lawmakers can sit down and make policy garnering sixty, seventy percent support.  Unfortunately in the real world, that type of consensus rarely occurs.

3. Unique senate rules allow for extreme obstruction.  Besides the fillibuster, Senate rules grant individual senators amazing power to block legislative action.  Because senators use these tools to obtain power and bring money to their states, no single senator has an incentive to change the rules.  LBJ was correct when he asserted that "the difference between being a member of the Senate and a member of the House is the difference between chicken salad, and chicken shit."  Read this horrifying article about how time (yes, time) is a precious commodity in the Senate.

The good news is that Senate rules, including the 60-vote requirement, are modifiable.  The first party to eliminate the obstruction rules will, despite much squealing and outrage from the minority, be able to pass tons of legislation and confront big, complex issues.  Though branded as tyrants of the majority, that party will reap the benefits of making big, exciting stuff happen.  Now the only question is, who's got the guts?

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