The Senate's problem is not disagreement. It's elections.
Paul Krugman's column today tells the story of the Sejm, the Polish legislative body that ran under the principle of unanimity. As you might have guessed, it didn't work very well, and Poland didn't do very well (though you could point to a lot of reasons Poland didn't do very well), and Krugman uses it to make some smart points about the U.S. Senate.
But there's an important distinction worth drawing here. In the Polish Sejm, you needed full agreement from 100 percent of the members to move forward. That's nuts. But you could certainly imagine agreement from 60 percent of a body's membership. That's higher than 51 percent, to be sure, but not that much higher.
The problem with the Senate is not that you can't get 60 people out of 100 people to agree on something. It's that roughly half the folks will lose any chance at a promotion, and they may even lose their job, if they agree with the other half. Bipartisanship isn't impossible because people disagree on the finer points of American policy, though many of them certainly do. It's impossible because the parties are locked in a zero-sum struggle for control, and you don't gain an advantage if you give the other side a major accomplishment and then tell the American people they really did a good job reaching out to your and your colleagues. That's the equivalent of saying to your employer, "Don't give me a promotion, and in fact, think hard about whether you might want to lay me off next year."
As I've said before, it is very near to impossible to build out an ideological model explaining why Republicans who voted for the deficit-financed Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit would vote against the deficit-neutral health-care reform bill. But it's very easy to build out a model explaining why Republicans would vote for a bill that would help them if it passed and against a bill that would hurt them if it failed. Same goes for Democrats. Good-faith disagreement is not the explanation that best fits the data.
This isn't, importantly, an attack on either party. It's good to have a competitive electoral system! But if we're going to give the minority party a reason to want the majority party to fail at governing the country, we can't also give them the power to make the majority party fail at governing the country. We need a legislative system that works alongside our political system, not one that pretends we have a different, more harmonious political system than we really do.
Photo credit: By Harry Hamburg/Associated Press
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