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Posted at 12:31 PM ET, 01/28/2011

Did the Senate just lose the future?

By Ezra Klein

reidandmcconnellchairedJPG.JPG

The pity of the deal that Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell struck on rules reform is that this was a really good moment for Senate reform. The usual danger with this kind of project is that it'll end up being a power grab directed at passing some discrete pieces of legislation, as when Bill Frist tried to free judicial nominees from the filibuster, rather than an overhaul dedicated to making the institution work better. But with one party controlling the House and another controlling the Senate, there was no way that a more majoritarian Senate could start ramming all sorts of legislation into law. For the next two years -- and probably some time after that -- Barack Obama will not sign anything that John Boehner hasn't already approved. Both Republicans and Democrats had the luxury of contemplating the Senate's workings without giving either party a major advantage in passing new legislation.

Instead, the Senate decided that its current procedures are good enough. There's something slightly terrifying about that. Accepting a dysfunctional legislature is, as James Fallows and others have argued, one way to lose the future. Our problems -- debt, health-care costs, infrastructure, education, etc. -- are on autopilot. Our solutions are not. Obama can give as many speeches as he wants. If we don't have a political system capable of acting on our challenges, we don't have a political system capable of overcoming them.

I've never been a huge fan of 'the constitutional option. My oft-expressed preference was for both parties to recognize that the Senate is broken and requires fairly fundamental reforms. One way to do that would be to phase in the reforms over six years, ensuring that no one knew who would benefit from the more majoritarian institution first. Another would've been to do it now, when divided government would undermine any advantage that Democrats might gain from the new rules, and thus might have given both parties space to participate in the process with more of a long-range perspective.

Instead, both parties decided to back off. There were hard decisions to be made, and they agreed not to make them. They chose the parochial comforts of what they were used to, and what would advantage each of them personally, to the discomfort and sacrifice that creating a more workable legislative process would require.

When I speak publicly, I always get variants of the same question: We've got so many problems to solve. Can we solve them? And the answer I always give is the same: Yes. in most cases, we already know what to do. The question is simply whether we'll do it. And I'm a lot less confident about that.

Photo credit: David Scull/Bloomberg News.

By Ezra Klein  | January 28, 2011; 12:31 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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Comments

Indeed. McConnell had no problem to make his gentleman's agreement considering that the filibuster will not be the way that legislation is stopped in the 112th congress. Rather it will be in the house.
I'm sure this agreement will be dropped like a hot potato next time the Dems (and maybe the Repubs) have full control of Congress & the presidency.

Posted by: nomadwolf | January 28, 2011 1:02 PM | Report abuse

"They chose the parochial comforts of what they were used to, and what would advantage each of them personally, to the discomfort and sacrifice that creating a more workable legislative process would require."

Bingo. I think you underestimated the factor that Senators like being Senators. They especially like not being House members. They like the fact that on any issue of particular importance to them, they can stop everything by being the "60th" Senator and actually have the press, the President, pundits, etc pay attention to them and accommodate them.

Posted by: jnc4p | January 28, 2011 1:15 PM | Report abuse

Almost one half of the Senate is 65, or will turn so this year. The future is their least concern.

How to pass on their hereditary lordship to their spouse, offspring, or staffer is the primary focus of their work.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | January 28, 2011 1:20 PM | Report abuse

I've never been a fan of term limits, but if senators (but not representatives) were term-limited, we might see an improvement here: a senator would have 12 years to "get things done," and the institutional culture would change in favor of getting things done instead of having a jolly old time hanging out with your fellow senators. They'd spend less time agonizing over and manipulating senate procedure and more time doing work.

The senators' love affair with being senators seems like the problem here.

Posted by: constans | January 28, 2011 1:39 PM | Report abuse

I've already written my Senators informing them that I will vote for someone else in their primary and/or election.
.
This is simply an unconscionable abdication of responsibility and Reid should have forced the matter through so that we have our duly elected representatives on record on the subject. If they couldn't get 51 votes on something this basic, they don't deserve to be in the Senate.

Term limits are nice, but ultimately futile as they just ensure that lobbyists would have more knowledge of the Senate than *all* the senators rather than just most of them.

Posted by: rpixley220 | January 28, 2011 1:59 PM | Report abuse

Another question: Citing why they didn't push for reform a staffer apparently claimed that you needed 'unanimous consent' in order to put the measure on the Senate calendar in the first place. Prior to the previous Senate's rules being adopted there should only be a majority rules no?

Can anyone confirm where this 'rule' comes from? it's not in the constitution and I don't see anything related requiring unanimous consent for something like this.

Posted by: rpixley220 | January 28, 2011 2:04 PM | Report abuse

A dysfunctional legislature is bad for democracy, full stop. It's possible that we'll come up with policy solutions for all of our massive outstanding problems, but it's increasingly likely that those solutions will come out of the least democratic institutions possible -- the administrative agencies and the courts. It's worth thinking about what an America where most of the important decisions NEED to be made by unelected bodies would mean.

Posted by: NS12345 | January 28, 2011 2:14 PM | Report abuse

I would not be surprised that at least some of the large proportion of Democrats who were fine with leaving the filibuster rules alone did so for the same reason the mad bomber sometimes says "stop me before I kill again!". Perhaps they are surveying the smoking remnants of the 2010 election and the various nasty surprises coming to light that were buried in Obamacare and realizing that they need to be protected from themselves and their leadership impetuously making more foolish decisions.

The vast majority of Americans are not craving radical action as some proponents (including Mr. Klein) of Senate "reform" contend. They rather are hoping for a government that doesn't screw things up too badly. Perhaps many of these Senators are coming to the realization that neither they nor their colleagues in the most exclusive club in the world know everything or are even that smart. And for that reason, maybe they recognize safety (from blame) in numbers.

The Founding Fathers set up the two houses of Congress to serve different purposes. The House reflects the vox populi. The Senate is supposed to represent the adult supervision. The filibuster rule is there to deal with the situation when the chaperons get into the spiked punch. Heaven protect us from simple majority rule. Thank goodness we have to also take into account prior acts and the minority view.

Posted by: beachnut | January 28, 2011 2:17 PM | Report abuse

I would not be surprised that at least some of the large proportion of Democrats who were fine with leaving the filibuster rules alone did so for the same reason the mad bomber sometimes says "stop me before I kill again!". Perhaps they are surveying the smoking remnants of the 2010 election and the various nasty surprises coming to light that were buried in Obamacare and realizing that they need to be protected from themselves and their leadership impetuously making more foolish decisions.

The vast majority of Americans are not craving radical action as some proponents (including Mr. Klein) of Senate "reform" contend. They rather are hoping for a government that doesn't screw things up too badly. Perhaps many of these Senators are coming to the realization that neither they nor their colleagues in the most exclusive club in the world know everything or are even that smart. And for that reason, maybe they recognize safety (from blame) in numbers.

The Founding Fathers set up the two houses of Congress to serve different purposes. The House reflects the vox populi. The Senate is supposed to represent the adult supervision. The filibuster rule is there to deal with the situation when the chaperons get into the spiked punch. Heaven protect us from simple majority rule. Thank goodness we have to also take into account prior acts and the minority view.

Posted by: beachnut | January 28, 2011 2:19 PM | Report abuse

The encrusted mentalities of men like Reid and McConnell are why the young are turned off by politics. Confronted with overwhelming evidence of a dysfunctional Senate, they opt to maintain a safe status quo that preserves their power. So much for their oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.

Posted by: tomcammarata | January 28, 2011 2:26 PM | Report abuse

--*If we don't have a political system capable of acting on our challenges, we don't have a political system capable of overcoming them.*--

God, that's funny. The more the meddlers meddle, Klein, the more meddling there is to be done. Your activist political system amounts to pulling the building down upon yourself. The unintended consequences of every intrusion into the economy expand geometrically. Government is incapable of managing even the simplest things; it is a disaster at anything requiring more than two inputs. What a freaking joke.

Posted by: msoja | January 28, 2011 2:33 PM | Report abuse

Come on, Ezra. No one is ever going to get mobilized behind reforming the filibuster unless they have a strong political incentive to do it.

There's no way to depoliticize it and have Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell shake hands to make the government work better.

The filibuster will be eliminated soon, because a 60% majority for everything just isn't workable, and even though Democrats are gluttons for punishment, Republicans won't be if they gain control of the Senate.

Remember, Bill Frist came very close to gutting the filibuster, and that was over a handful of judges.

The next time Republicans are in power Democrats will try to filibuster some sort of crazy teabagger priority and the response will be hell and fury from the base and endless calls for an "upperdown vote." We'll get rules change, and it will probably be the first good thing the Tea Party has ever done for the country.

Posted by: dstr | January 28, 2011 2:36 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, just think of it this way: if you got your way and the filibuster was eliminated....ten years ago....the Bush tax cuts would have been permanent, Bush would have loaded the judiciary up with a bunch more Scalia's, and Iraq might have been the 51st state by now.

Look, I know it's really hard for progressives to accept that people don't always agree with all their wonderful statist ideas. But there's a reason the founders set up a system with all it's checks and balances....so the country wouldn't be whipped back and forth with every whim of a new President, or sea change in the legislature.

Sure, the filibuster itself may not have been around in 1776, but it's clear if you read any of the history of the thought processes that went into our nation's beginning the founders feared fast and radical changes to laws. Of course those peasant farmers weren't as smart as Ezra and his progressive brethren, but they had a reason for why they set it up how they did.

For one, they believed big changes in laws should only happen when a large share of the populace, including from all political pursasions, were by and large in agreement (which of course would have excluded the one-sided ACA, but I digress).

Posted by: dbw1 | January 28, 2011 2:51 PM | Report abuse

The authors of the recent book "Winner-Take-All Politics" cite 'policy drift'--the inaction on current policy to accommodate changing circumstances, e.g. population increase,-- as a significant cause of our current economic dilemma.
The Congressional stalemate, the Senate in particular, perpetuates this aimless drift, potentially maintaining or exacerbating the economic inequality w/corresponding effects.

Posted by: joelgingery1 | January 28, 2011 2:55 PM | Report abuse

@dstr wrote:
"The next time Republicans are in power Democrats will try to filibuster some sort of crazy teabagger priority and the response will be hell and fury from the base and endless calls for an "upperdown vote." We'll get rules change, and it will probably be the first good thing the Tea Party has ever done for the country."
.
Spot on. Except that the reforms offered by the GOP will be the power grab that goes too far. And the Dems will probably cave in to political name calling per usual.

Posted by: rpixley220 | January 28, 2011 2:56 PM | Report abuse

The authors of the recent book "Winner-Take-All Politics" cite 'policy drift'--the inaction on current policy to accommodate changing circumstances, e.g. population increase,-- as a significant cause of our current economic dilemma.
The Congressional stalemate, the Senate in particular, perpetuates this aimless drift, potentially maintaining or exacerbating the economic inequality w/corresponding effects.

Posted by: joelgingery1 | January 28, 2011 2:56 PM | Report abuse

"if you got your way and the filibuster was eliminated....ten years ago....the Bush tax cuts would have been permanent, Bush would have loaded the judiciary up with a bunch more Scalia's, and Iraq might have been the 51st state by now."

See, that's the point right there. Of these 3 things, one is a joke, and the other two have basically already come to pass. In reality, the filibuster does very little in real terms when it comes to protecting actual governing priorities--though it does a LOT when it comes to protecting individual Senators' personal prerogatives!

And it gives lobbyists for all special interests a certain comfort, since they don't have to learn a new set of rules--even if, ultimately, these rules would serve their interests better.

But in the end, Mitch McConnell has demonstrated why filibuster reform will eventually come to pass or the country will collapse. He took the House by a policy of filibuster abuse and total obstruction.

It's insane to try and run a government where almost all the time passing laws depends on a number of people from the other party sacrificing their own party's ability to take power in order to pass the other party's priorities. It's like making Coke's franchise agreements dependent on support from Pepsi's boardmembers. It's demented.

Posted by: theorajones1 | January 28, 2011 3:12 PM | Report abuse

--*I've never been a huge fan of the constitutional option.*--

Yeah, well it would help if you could understand the Constitution, but, it's understandable, it being written so long ago, and all.

Posted by: msoja | January 28, 2011 3:15 PM | Report abuse

* The Senate is supposed to represent the adult supervision.*

And yet the senators are acting like petulant children, mindlessly filibustering and putting "secret holds" on everything.

* Heaven protect us from simple majority rule*

That is what the state-by-state representation system in the senate is for. The senate was supposed to function by rule of a majority of senators, created from a non-majoritarian election system. Do you not understand that?

Posted by: constans | January 28, 2011 3:24 PM | Report abuse

i almost NEVER agree with constans but I agree here. Term limits would help a lot. Also if you can't be present for at least 50% of the votes (ie medical issues) then maybe its time to step aside (ie move into a retirement home).

Posted by: visionbrkr | January 28, 2011 3:28 PM | Report abuse

We also overlook that the Founding Fathers, wisely it would seem, did not make the Senators elected directly by the people but by the state legislators. Maybe it's time to repeal that Amendment!

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | January 28, 2011 5:11 PM | Report abuse

And this is why I'm out. No more supporting the DNC, no more letters or calls to DC, no more voting in the General Election, no more money to politics at all. I'm done. Only voting on local issues.

The Senate is broken, Obama is reduced to nothing more than a cheerleader (got that from Kunstler), and the GOP is just smart enough to realized that being bat s..t crazy gets them both power and money.

A shame really. As a nation we used to be able to think big and with concern for our neighbor. Our elected officials reflected these ideals (am I naive?). Now we think only of making more money and to heck with our neighbor.

Good luck everyone,
BKA-W

Posted by: RowanTrumpetProf | January 29, 2011 8:38 AM | Report abuse

What they agreed to do is protect their power in the event that they are losers. Democrats can be counted on to do this with alarming regularity. They view themselves fundamentally as losers and act accordingly.

I'm out too.

I've been giving the party an earful every time they call for more money. They're not getting it. The most I will offer them is that I won't vote Republican because I can't bring myself to push the button for crazy.

But I also can't bring myself to piss my hard earned money away on losers. I expected better from them and I didn't get it, on anything, right down the line.

Posted by: pj_camp | January 29, 2011 11:49 AM | Report abuse

And can there be a cheesier, stupider slogan than "winning the future" (tm). ? Why do you repeat this low class sounding junk? Apparently all administration officials have been asked to parrot it and maybe even have it tattooed on themselves.

Posted by: truck1 | January 29, 2011 8:04 PM | Report abuse

"Winning the future" (tm) represents an important new low point in this administration's discourse. Attempting to sell policies like businesses do products, with a SLOGAN, shows a level of contempt for the public not heretofore seen. "It's the real thing" -- coca cola; "a smile that lights up a room" -- colgate; "winning the future" (tm) -- administration policies

Posted by: truck1 | January 29, 2011 10:02 PM | Report abuse

@msoja wrote:

“--*I've never been a huge fan of the constitutional option.*--
Yeah, well it would help if you could understand the Constitution, but, it's understandable, it being written so long ago, and all.”
-------------------------------------------
The so-called “constitutional option” simply requires Senators to support the Constitution which they are sworn to support. So what’s wrong with that?

The Constitution requires majority rule on all matters except to override vetoes, ratify treaties, expel members of Congress, propose amendments to the Constitution and to convict in impeachment cases.

This is because, according to James Madison, one of the Framers of the Constitution, in Federalist Paper No. 58, if “more than a majority” were required for a decision in most matters “the fundamental principle of free government would be reversed. It would be no longer the majority that would rule; the power would be transferred to the minority.”

When interpreting the Constitution the Supreme Court looks to the Framer’s understanding of it as expressed in the various papers, including the Federalist Papers, written about the time that the Constitution was adopted. (See Justice Ginsberg’s concurring opinion in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission (1995), 514 U.S. 334, 360-361.)

So as a citizen of the United States I’d like to hear a cogent argument from Senators voting against the constitutional option why they feel that they are no longer bound by their oath to support the Constitution.

Posted by: billeisen1 | January 30, 2011 2:36 PM | Report abuse

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