The problem of Senate floor time
As you know by now, the FinReg bill is getting squeezed by the need to move a war supplemental and an extension of unemployment insurance next week. But it's worth taking this problem out of the context of this or that issue and just putting it on its own terms. The Senate does a lot more now than it did, say, 100 years ago. The country is bigger and more complex and there are more committees and constituencies and issues. But the Senate itself is not larger than it was in 1910, and its days have not become much longer, and the advent of air travel has made it easier for senators to head home for the weekend and so, if anything, senators spend less time in Washington than they used to.
All this creates a time crunch. Most of us only tune in for occasional big bills, but the Senate is responsible for all manner of nominations and appropriations and budgets that have to be passed even if there's no real time to pass them. And when you have lots of things to do and not that much time to do it, you can't spend enough time on each individual thing.
People normally take this as an argument that the Senate should work more. As it is, the average week is about three days long. But politicians are wise to our game on this: We want them to work more, but then we get really upset if it turns out they're not spending enough days back home and we elect the guy who keeps telling us about how he'll be back home every week no matter what. So that's what we've got, and the politicians can't work longer weeks until we decide to stop punishing them for spending a lot of time doing their job.
It seems that the obvious thing to do would be to take committees more seriously: There's not enough time to do everything on the Senate floor, but if people really trusted the committees and just gave their products a quick up-or-down vote, that would speed things along nicely. The problem there is that senators want to make changes to bills that didn't come from committees they served on. One way to handle this would be for them to vote against the bill and relay their concerns to the committee, which could then decide whether to deal with addressing them if the bill lost. But no one seems to want to do that because it means giving up valuable power and influence.
And then there's the question of the Senate rules: The practice of mounting routine filibusters even when you don't have the 40 votes necessary to keep filibustering slows the Senate floor to a crawl: It takes about three days to break a filibuster, and a single bill can face multiple filibusters, and so you can waste a week on a small bill that passes by 70 votes. The way to handle that would be to change the rules around filibusters, but it's not clear anyone is ready to do that, either.
You basically have a broken Senate but no one is willing to make the compromises necessary to do something about it, which isn't, I guess, a newsflash to readers of this blog.
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