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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.

By Ezra Klein  |  May 20, 2010; 12:45 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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Comments

not for nothing but why not stop doing the unemployment insurance etc on a month by month basis. Sure I know Republicans are going to be shouting and filibustering and all and asking that it needs to be paid for (which it should) but wouldn't Dems be better off clearing the calendar for say 6 months with those issues? Wouldn't it be in their political favor as well to go through one round of "unfunded mandate cries" than 6. Its not as if anyone expects that unemployment is going to fix itself in a month's time. While this is partially Republicans fault Dems are at fault too.


Another point is the left and right polarization (especially around the elections). If a committee passes something and a legislator rubber stamps it and then something turns up in the bill not to their constituents liking they'll be called out on the carpet for it right or wrong. To that end I blame Beck, Hannity as well as Olbermann and Maddow.

Polarization kills the ability of politicians to govern just as much as the rules do because these rules aren't new but the polarization is stronger than its ever been.

Posted by: visionbrkr | May 20, 2010 12:55 PM | Report abuse

oops I forgot to blame Limbaugh. I'm sure my friends on here will realize that as the honest omission that it is.

Posted by: visionbrkr | May 20, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

Kids these days -- seriously. "But the Senate itself is not larger than it was in 1910," !?!?

In 1910 there were 96 Senators. Hell when I was born there were only 96 (and no I'm not 100 years old). Hawaii's first two senators and Alaska's first two senators were elected the day before I was born.

Use the google or Wikipedia it "Hawaiʻi (i /həˈwaɪ.iː/ or /həˈwaɪʔiː/ in English; Hawaiian: Mokuʻāina o Hawaiʻi) is the newest of the 50 U.S. states (August 21, 1959)," and "Alaska (i /əˈlæskə/) ... the 49th state of the U.S. on January 3, 1959."

visionbrkr I will forgive the omission of Limbaugh, if you provide me with an example of Maddow or Olberman "calling someone on the carpet" over an obscure provision of a bill for which he or she voted.

Ballance is not obligatory in Washington Post comment threads (see tinyurl dot com 2uh3ccs).

Posted by: rjw88 | May 20, 2010 1:15 PM | Report abuse

While there's talk of changing the rules next January to eliminate the filibuster, I don't believe the Dems will have the guts to do major surgery of that sort. But they're at least talking about it.

What I'm hoping is that, as weak half-measure, they'll at least dispense with the parts of Rule 22 that cause even an 'unsuccessful' filibuster to eat up piles of Senate floor time.

If they can do that, then 'holds' essentially go away, and filibusters are 'only' a problem when you actually don't have 60 votes for something.

And if they also made motions to proceed non-filibusterable, then a minority couldn't kill something before it had at least been debated, which would make killing a bill a bit more public, and therefore harder to do.

Posted by: rt42 | May 20, 2010 1:34 PM | Report abuse

"In 1910 there were 96 Senators. Hell when I was born there were only 96 (and no I'm not 100 years old). Hawaii's first two senators and Alaska's first two senators were elected the day before I was born."

Actually there were only 92. Arizona and New Mexico didn't become states, and achieve full congressional representation, until 1912.

But going from 92 or 96 to 100 Senators is still not a big gain compared to the vastly larger and more complex workload they have today, and that was Ezra's main point.

Posted by: mkarns | May 20, 2010 2:06 PM | Report abuse

Or the federal government could reduce the areas of public policy that is under its perview and focus on issues of national importance like defence, diplomacy, social security, and health insurance.

Posted by: lancediverson | May 20, 2010 2:33 PM | Report abuse

Wrong again ,Klein. The Senate is bigger, just add in the size of their staffs (and the lobbyists that write prescription drug laws).

Posted by: staticvars | May 20, 2010 3:11 PM | Report abuse

For those who want to quibble, as those above and not discuss the real problems, New Mexico and Arizona joined in 1912, so there were only 44 Senators in 1910; but a bigger item that prevents the Senators from getting their work -- FOR US --done is the time they "have" to spend raising money for their "permanent" campaigns!

We need a public campaign-financing law! It would be FAR cheaper than the tax breaks and spending that comes with the current campaign financing of today.

Posted by: DonB2 | May 20, 2010 7:50 PM | Report abuse

"You basically have a broken Senate"

Your implication is that there isn't enough time to get everything done that needs to be done, and that the Senate rules are preventing things from being done. And yet, we have healthcare reform completed, after trying and failing to pass a form of it dating back to the 1970s (at least). And now we have the most comprehensive FinReg bill passed since Glass-Steagal.

Maybe there isn't time to do eveything we would like, and maybe those things that have been accomplished don't include everything you would like, but how far back in history do you have to go to find a legislature that has more major accomplishments?

Posted by: dlmzzz | May 20, 2010 10:55 PM | Report abuse

For those who want to quibble, as those above and not discuss the real problems, New Mexico and Arizona joined in 1912, so there were only 44 Senators in 1910; but a bigger item that prevents the Senators from getting their work -- FOR US --done is the time they "have" to spend raising money for their "permanent" campaigns!

We need a public campaign-financing law! It would be FAR cheaper than the tax breaks and spending that comes with the current campaign financing of today.

Posted by: DonB2 | May 21, 2010 12:40 AM | Report abuse

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