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Posted at 9:21 AM ET, 02/ 1/2011

The Senate vs. the future

By Ezra Klein

Thumbnail image for quietkerry.JPG

If historians ever have to pinpoint the day that America lost the future, they're likely to look to last Thursday. That was when Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell took to the floor of the Senate to announce an agreement on fixing the increasingly sclerotic, polarized, dysfunctional body they lead. Their agreement? Neither of them would fix it. Both promised not to change the rules of using a majority vote for at least four years. Nor did they set up an alternative process for taking a good, long look at why the Senate has begun to make a Beverly Hills divorce look courteous and functional. They just . . . moved on.

This came a few days after President Obama's State of the Union address, in which he exhorted Americans to make the tough decisions necessary to "win the future." That would would mean overhauling, among other things, the public sector. "We can't win the future with a government of the past," he warned.

But when it came to offering specifics, the president whiffed. He settled for a laugh line about regulating salmon rather than a cold-eyed appraisal of the gridlock and misaligned incentives of the body that -- along with the House -- serves as the board of directors for the United States of America. How well they work matters much more than who regulates what we put on our bagels. As an explanation of what stands between America and "winning the future," Obama's speech wasn't good enough. He dodged the real problem.

Two weeks before Obama's address, however, Sen. John Kerry delivered the speech that Obama should have given. Like Obama, Kerry emphasized that "developed and developing countries are making far-reaching choices to reshape their economies and move forward in a new and very different global era." Like Obama, Kerry intoned that "we as a people face another Sputnik moment today." Like Obama, Kerry argued that "unprecedented levels of investment in science and technology, engineering and R&D" had provided the foundation for American leadership in the 20th century, and would be required to build on it in the 21st.

But Kerry's explanation of the way our political system is impeding our efforts to adapt to a fast-changing future and meet the obstacles in our path was much more ambitious, and much more precise. "On issue after issue," he said, "enduring consensus has been frayed or shredded by lust for power cloaked in partisan games." He noted that the individual mandate began as a Republican idea, that cap-and-trade was a favored policy of the first Bush administration, that treaties that were much more far-reaching than START once passed with 90 or 95 votes.

The grim reality, he said, is that "in the 21st century where choices and consequences come at us so much faster than ever before, the price of Senate inaction isn't just that we will stand still; it isn't just that America will fall behind; it's that we will stay behind as we cede the best possibilities of this young century to others who are more disciplined."

The incentives, structure and customs of the contemporary Senate are not well-suited to good governance. It's arguable, in fact, that they do not even permit good governance. Kerry illustrated the problem by quoting from a PowerPoint presentation that Senate Republicans used to open the session. "The purpose of the majority is to pass their agenda," the slide read. "The purpose of the minority is to become the majority."

Isn't the purpose supposed to be to better the country?

Jeff Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University, makes the point this way: "Remember when Mitch McConnell said 'the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president'? You would never say inside a company that our intention is to make the CEO fail. No one would tolerate that on a board. You'd be booted off. The objective is to make the CEO and the company successful."

The problem facing our system is that the minority has both the electoral incentive to see the majority fail and, using the Senate's rules, the power to make it fail. Far from encouraging bipartisanship, this encourages a particularly virulent strain of partisanship: In a world where the majority can govern with or without you, you have a strong incentive to participate constructively in the process. In a world where the majority can't govern without you, and won't be reelected if they can't govern, you have a strong incentive to walk away from the process. Success for the majority means electoral failure for you. That means your interests and the country's interests are not aligned.

That's not how successful companies are run, as Pfeffer notes. And it's not how other countries are run. Indeed, for a long time, it's not even how we were run. For much of the 20th century, our political system showed very little polarization. The filibuster was rarely deployed, party-line voting was uncommon and consensus was much closer at hand.

But those days are over. In the past two years, we've seen more filibusters than in the '40s, '50s and '60s combined. Party-line votes are a constant. Congressional leaders freely admit, as House Speaker John Boehner did, that this is "not a time for compromise." We have a legislative system built for a political system from another time. If we're to win the future, we're going to need one adapted to the realities of our present. Constructing that system will require thoughtful engagement from people of both parties. But saying that what we've got now is good enough is not, well, good enough.

Photo credit: By Alex Wong/Getty Images

By Ezra Klein  | February 1, 2011; 9:21 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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Comments

wrong Ezra

Historians will look at the utterly insane Clinton impeachment as the day that Americans became irrevocably polarized and our gvmt started to crumble and be capable of solving any long-term problems.

I saw the signs of a nihilistic and dangerous party during the Clarence Thomas hearings and then it was confirmed in the 92 election when the GOP was willing to say or do anything to win power.

That's when I ceased being a Republican, and the impeachment, and many other acts of GOP sabotage since then, have only validated my decision.

Bush v Gore, Citizens United, and now the destruction of ACA are further proof that my country has become roadkill.

Posted by: lauren2010 | February 1, 2011 9:45 AM | Report abuse

It's interesting to read this post with the "Did Reagan Change America?" post yesterday. The electoral incentives in past decades were presumably similar to those of today, yet the senate was not so dysfunctional as it is today. What has changed in the past couple of decades? Is it simply an increase in partisanship around the same policy center, or has the center moved to the right, causing increased partisanship?

Posted by: jduptonma | February 1, 2011 9:50 AM | Report abuse

"In a world where the majority can't govern without you, and won't be reelected if they can't govern, you have a strong incentive to walk away from the process."

And, a strong incentive to out-crazy one another. Palin and Bachmann can prater endlessly about all the kooky things they want to do because there's zero power for for them to do it. Without responsibility for creating policy, Tea Partiers can forever live in dreamland about what a perfect libertarian utopia would look like. If either party had the actual power to enact its agenda, though, there'd be far less alienation and extremism.

Posted by: Chris_ | February 1, 2011 9:50 AM | Report abuse

"yet the senate was not so dysfunctional as it is today. What has changed in the past couple of decades?"

Ideology and partisanship has become one thing. Before you had liberal Northeast Republicans and conservative southern Democrats. Jimmy Carter could get southern votes because of his southern identity; Nelson Rockefeller could be a VP. That sort of thing doesn't happen anymore ... maybe because of politicized media, or because race has stopped being such a huge driving force in politics ... I'm not sure.

Posted by: Chris_ | February 1, 2011 9:56 AM | Report abuse

jduptomna, I think the easy answer is that the strategy of obstruction didn't occur to politicians until the 90s. Just like it took decades for Senators to realize the filibuster even existed, it just took a long time, carried by inertia and tradition, for them to realize that obstruction is a better strategy for retaking the majority.

Chris, agreed. If the majority actually had to enact the agenda that they talked up to their base, you'd see the same negative reaction for legislative inaction, but at least inaction would be because someone (either themselves or their party leadership) would realize how insane the ideas would be to actually implement and balk.

Posted by: MosBen | February 1, 2011 9:59 AM | Report abuse

I think the end of the Cold War also changed domestic politics. The Cold War served as a reason for GOP presidents like Eisenhower, Nixon, and even Reagan to support a strong federal role in domestic as well as foreign policy. Without that unifying factor, conservatism has reverted to a pre-Cold War, Lochner era view of government.

Posted by: jduptonma | February 1, 2011 10:09 AM | Report abuse

Someone like John Kerry needs to filibuster every single motion and bill that comes to the floor, and force the rest of the Senate to remove his ability to do so.

Posted by: donhalljobs | February 1, 2011 10:18 AM | Report abuse

"jduptomna, I think the easy answer is that the strategy of obstruction didn't occur to politicians until the 90s. Just like it took decades for Senators to realize the filibuster even existed, it just took a long time, carried by inertia and tradition, for them to realize that obstruction is a better strategy for retaking the majority."

You're about 6 years too late. Obstructionism began in 1987 with the Democratic rejection of Robert Bork.

Posted by: krazen1211 | February 1, 2011 10:33 AM | Report abuse

I am always baffled by criticizing Republicans for ideas which originated with them, but now have somehow become anathema. How is that fair? If the idea was so good, the Democrats should have agreed to it in the first place. The blame lies with everyone. If Democrats had accepted a Republican compromise on these issues, rather than refusing and punting it decades ahead, and then just appropriating the same ideas, we wouldn't have this mess.

Posted by: puzzlemuse | February 1, 2011 10:35 AM | Report abuse

Harry Reid is so ineffective, he might as well be a Republican.

Posted by: yellojkt | February 1, 2011 10:36 AM | Report abuse

--*"The purpose of the majority is to pass their agenda"*--

That's John Kerry, for you, in thrall to banana republic-ism.

It is not government's "business" (Klein's view is equally moronic) to swing back and forth on electoral pendulums, but instead to concern itself with preserving the rights of its individual citizens, and possibly, defending the borders.

Klein's contention that it wasn't always thus (so partisanly extreme) just might owe its germ of truth to the fact that never before has one of the dominant political parties been so bent on bestowing on its supporting factions the assets of the opposition's factions.

--*If historians ever have to pinpoint the day that America lost the future*--

Klein has screwed his vapid stare to "the future" quite often in the last few days. I suppose it's what people who can't understand hundred year old texts do as a way of compensating, but it's really empty gibberish, worthy of any snake oil salesman.

Posted by: msoja | February 1, 2011 10:42 AM | Report abuse

Klein is totally correct, but the Obama Administration shares the blame--at least for allowing the Republicans to get away with total obstruction. Immediately after winning one chamber of Congress, the Republicans asserted that Obama must bend to the "will of the people." Yet after 2008, when the Republicans unanimously rejected the stimulus, we heard no claims of a mandate by the Administration. A more adept political operation might legitimately have made the claim that Republicans were not accepting the popular verdict of the election. Each announced filibuster could have been made an occasion for pillorying the Republicans in the Senate as putting themselves in the way of the expressed will of the people.

Posted by: nadelm | February 1, 2011 10:46 AM | Report abuse

Liberals on the 3 branches of government:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fG0Jpu9geWY&feature=player_embedded

Posted by: krazen1211 | February 1, 2011 10:52 AM | Report abuse

At least both liberal and conservative blog commenters can agree that obstructionism is rampent and our senate leadership is a bunch of self-serving egoists who put themselves before their country.

Posted by: BHeffernan1 | February 1, 2011 10:57 AM | Report abuse

If the Senate rules need any changing it's to limit the powers of leadership.

Posted by: cprferry | February 1, 2011 11:21 AM | Report abuse

The more and more you think about Obama's last State of Union Speech, you will realize that it has been one of the worst speeches of Obama Presidency where damage done is far ever lasting.

His refusal to talk seriously about budget deficit is a big deal when we needed that leadership. Basically he is simply gunning for one stimulus in his third year and he is doing tap dance for that.

He is like Jack Welch of GE - it does not matter how longer term damage is done here; I only want to bother about the current quarter. That is what Obama is looking - it does not matter how much down I kick the can; as long as my this quarter growth rate is okay and employment is holding; everything else is dispensable.

Coupled with Egypt fiasco, indeed Obama is looking 'clueless' and hardly a leader of Free People.

Posted by: umesh409 | February 1, 2011 12:08 PM | Report abuse

krazen, I'll be happy to entertain any opposing viewpoints, but my understanding of the Bork confirmation hearings was that they did change the dynamic of judicial confirmations, but that blocking the President's nominee wasn't a specific electoral strategy of the Dems. Their opposition was, whether you agree with them or not, based on their view that he would make a bad Justice, not that stopping the President's agenda would net them seats.

As far as I'm aware, 'blocking the President's agenda as a means of gaining in the next election' was primarily Newt's innovation.

msoja, that's a lot of words to make yourself sound completely stupid.

puzzlemuse, it's not that the Dems think the individual mandate are perfect ideas. Many Dems think single payer is best, others think a fully socialized system is best. The individual mandate, paired with subsidies, is a compromised position. Should they have taken the Republican's offer in the 90s? Maybe, but they were trying to push for their own plan, and lost. By the time they lost, all the energy had drained out of the movement. When they decided this time to take another run at it, they said, "Ok, let's go for what they said they liked last time. It's better than the road we're on." When they did, Republicans said that their own ideas were Anti-American or some such. Maybe the Dems deserve a little criticism for not being pragmatic enough (no less than Teddy Kennedy, but for whom we'd have single payer today), but the Republicans were just hypocritical.

Posted by: MosBen | February 1, 2011 12:09 PM | Report abuse

Dunno who wrote that powerpoint slide Kerry quoted, but got to love their unabashed co-optation of Goldstein's book (1984): "The aim of the High is to remain where they are. The aim of the Middle is to change places with the High." Broken irony meter somewhere in this.

Posted by: lindsaypolak | February 1, 2011 12:24 PM | Report abuse

@puzzlemuse:
It's perfectly fair.

The Dems proposed 'Clinton Care' that the GOP howled about and in response proposed the individual mandate.

Scroll forward to the next time the Dems have the opportunity to do Health Care and so they propose something quite similar to the GOP's original suggestion.

Funny how now that idea now is anti-GOP. That's called being hypocritical.

The other thing to note here is that the Dems have PROPOSED ideas, not complained from the cheap seats like the GOP in these two cases. The GOP still has no ideas on that 'replace' part of 'repeal and replace' sloganeering they tout.

The first bills in this 'jobs jobs jobs' House? ACA repeal (with no replace - that had zero chance of passing), House Rules Changes and Abortion.

Not a hint of 'jobs' there. Nice to see those priorities on display again huh?

Posted by: rpixley220 | February 1, 2011 1:10 PM | Report abuse

Egypt today.....America tomorrow!
it's taking us longer and some of us still have food but we are looking at ourselves in 10 years if nothing changes.......

There is real doubt in my mind as to Obama's re-election. His base is too sick of the hypocrisy like " we support human rights". USA supports torture by funding dictatorships like Mubarak and then helps to shut down communications to further suppress the protesters. Why arn't you talking about the US black site torture chambers in Egypt?

Posted by: hyacin | February 1, 2011 2:01 PM | Report abuse

Fantastic post even by your standards. I wish we had many more like you.

So what can we do now in view of our shameful senators?

One thing is really try to build support and understanding for abolishing the filibuster in the Democratic Party, stressing much more often that try-and-see is far more beneficial to good ideas, predominantly the Democrats', than ones harmful to the vast majority (or virtually everyone), predominantly the Republicans'.

And here are some other ideas to build for the future:

http://richardhserlin.blogspot.com/2010/11/automatic-registration-and-permanent.html

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | February 1, 2011 3:13 PM | Report abuse

Thanks, Bob Dole.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | February 1, 2011 3:49 PM | Report abuse

It's hypocritical for the Republicans to denounce the individual mandate idea with the vehemence they do, I agree. But it is also hypocritical for Democrats to defend it so strongly, and insist it is a necessary part of the "three-legged stool," which you hear all the time, but to have rejected it so soundly whenever it was proposed by Republicans. Everyone is obviously out for political gain. If the idea is good now, it was good back then, and the Democrats killed it then not because it was a bad idea, but because of some kind of political calculus. I just think that has to be recognized, because it makes criticism of Republicans in my mind unfounded (hypocritical).

Posted by: puzzlemuse | February 1, 2011 4:29 PM | Report abuse

Building on my last post, to put it another way, Democrats are angry now that Republicans aren't on board with this idea, but I think they have no right to be angry, since they were the ones that killed it in the first place. If they wanted Republicans on their side, they should have admitted it was a good idea when it was proposed, and not made it "dead on arrival" as you can read in Klein's interview with the mandate's intellectual father. They can't expect Republicans to just go along with them, when they acted out of the same political calculus.

Posted by: puzzlemuse | February 1, 2011 4:32 PM | Report abuse

Ezra Klein, a true prophet of the coming corporatist fascism heading our way. Way to go, Ezra! What a fraud.

Posted by: shred11 | February 1, 2011 5:27 PM | Report abuse

" 'On issue after issue,' he said, 'enduring consensus has been frayed or shredded by lust for power cloaked in partisan games.' He noted that the individual mandate began as a Republican idea, that cap-and-trade was a favored policy of the first Bush administration, that treaties that were much more far-reaching than START once passed with 90 or 95 votes."

Have you read the book "Why Trust Matters" by Marc Hetherington? I think you'd find it fascinating.

Posted by: Jabranham | February 1, 2011 7:15 PM | Report abuse

--*And here are some other ideas to build for the future:*--

So, you stop by once a day to plug your own web site? Yer one of them comment spammers I heerd about, aintcha?

--*try-and-see is far more beneficial to good ideas, predominantly the Democrats', than ones harmful to the vast majority (or virtually everyone), predominantly the Republicans*--

Collectivism, it's been rumored, Richard, looks good on paper, and I'd daresay that the thickness of paper is about as deep as your intellect goes.

What's good for people is freedom. Freedom to conduct their lives as they see fit, freedom to pursue their own happinesses. When you start forcing people to pursue *your* pea-brained happinesses, Richard, you are degrading their lives. You should quit kidding yourself that what the country needs is for your fool ideas to be rammed down everyone's throats. The vast swath of humanity out there does not need or want to be coddled by the likes of you or Klein.

Posted by: msoja | February 1, 2011 7:27 PM | Report abuse

mosja,

Externalities, free rider problems, inability/impracticality to patent, economies of scale and natural monopoly, asymmetric information, the zero marginal cost of ideas,...

Try googleing some of these things, or take an intermediate economics course at any major university to learn about them.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | February 1, 2011 8:12 PM | Report abuse

--*the zero marginal cost of ideas*--

Google: Your search - "the zero marginal cost of ideas" - did not match any documents.

Yippy!: three results, all Richard Serlin.

It's more like the zero marginal worth of your ideas, Richard.

Your worry about externalities is overblown. And even if it isn't, you still don't get the right to impose your notions on others. Mind your own business. Make the best of your own freedom. If that involves helping others, more power to you.

Posted by: msoja | February 1, 2011 8:55 PM | Report abuse

"The incentives, structure and customs of the contemporary Senate are not well-suited to good governance."

I disagree; the modern Senate is paralyzed because so many of its Senators are so worthless. Let's face it: no form of government is idiot-proof. It's easy to say "if only we had a parliamentary system, like England." But England joined us in the horrendous invasion of Iraq, and is currently rushing to implement the same terrible austerity programs our politicians want.

Posted by: B405 | February 1, 2011 11:07 PM | Report abuse

From an Australian - where we have bitter, permanent animosity between the opposing wings of a two(ish) party system, but a reasonably functional legislature and executive:

You'd all be well advised to stop expecting legislators to act against their own political interests. It's crazy!! Of course it would be nice if everyone were there to work harmoniously toward the betterment of the nation; but that's not the kind of world we live in. The line about 'the purpose of the minority' being 'to become the majority' is almost a truism to my ears. Either political actors behave in a manner consistent with their own political benefit - or they will be replaced with ones who do. It's a Darwinian process.

The trick for good government is not to expect people to act against their own self-interest; it's to make sure that their self-interest is aligned with public goods. I don't know exactly how you go about doing that, but its clear that it's not the case at the moment. There appears to be no link of accountability back to a minority opposition. That just encourages wrecking. People with power - even veto power, as is more-or-less the case with a Senate minority employing holds & filibusters, as far as this foreigner understands - need to be made accountable; or they need to not have power anymore.

Appealing to some sort of semimythical notion of a halcyon day when everyone held hands and did the right thing by the nation is fruitless. Get the incentives and structures right such that they set up a desirable equilibrium point, rather than demanding that people adopt losing strategies at every turn.

Posted by: dmrowe | February 2, 2011 8:28 PM | Report abuse

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