The Problem of the Senate

by dday

THE PROBLEM OF THE SENATE… Last week saw a paroxysm of opposition to Barack Obama’s budget plan from leading Senate Democrats. Evan Bayh formed his moderate working group, and Kent Conrad whittled down the budget proposal (in many respects by reinstating helpful budget fictions that make the deficit look smaller). And opposition to the Administration-supported cram-down proposal may scuttle that piece of the housing bill.

Jonathan Chait senses a pattern.

The last Democrat who held the White House, Bill Clinton, saw the core of his domestic agenda come to ruin, his political support collapse, and his failure spawn a massive Republican resurgence that made progressive reform impossible for a decade to come. The Democrat who last held the White House before that, Jimmy Carter, saw the exact same thing happen to him […]

George W. Bush came to office having lost the popular vote, with only 50 Republicans in the Senate. After his disputed election, pundits insisted Bush would have to scale back his proposed massive tax cuts for the rich. Instead, Bush managed to enact several rounds of tax cuts that substantially exceeded those in his campaign platform, along with two war resolutions, a Medicare prescription drug benefit designed to maximize profits for the health care industry, energy legislation, education reform, and sundry other items. Whatever the substantive merits of this agenda, its passage represented an impressive feat of political leverage, accomplished through near-total partisan discipline.

Obama has come into office having won the popular vote by seven percentage points, along with a 79-seat edge in the House, a 17-seat edge in the Senate, and massive public demand for change. But it’s already clear he is receiving less, not more, deference from his own party. Democrats have treated Obama with studied diffidence, both in their support for the substance of his agenda and (more importantly) their willingness to support it procedurally.

I’m of two minds on this. On the one hand, no co-equal branch of government SHOULD be a rubber-stamp (certainly the Hastert/DeLay/Frist Congress under George W. Bush shouldn’t be emulated), and Congress has every right to carry out their legislative agenda under their own terms. At the same time, the endless whining from Democratic “moderates” to modify the Obama agenda, not out of any principle or belief that a middle course makes the most sense from a policy standpoint, but because they have been seduced by the high Broderist idea that the middle distance between two points is a virtuous end in itself, is both grating and irresponsible. The moderates use selective outrage – we must close the deficit, but we can’t cap subsidies to wealthy agricultural interests to save money, just to use one example – to frustrate progress and make recovery more difficult.

However, Ezra Klein argues that the peculiar structures of the Senate are a far greater obstacle than the glory-seeking Senate moderates:

Which isn’t really to argue with the substance of Jon’s article: The Senate is a broken branch. If we don’t properly respond to the financial crisis or avert the crushing blow of rising health costs or slow the advance of catastrophic climate change, it will be because the institution is no longer capable of governance. But that is not, as Chait would have it, a purely Democratic problem. It’s an institutional issue. The local obsessions that Chait attaches to Conrad and Nelson are similarly prevalent among Republican Senators. The tremendous power of swing senators is as undeniable and capricious when Republicans rule as when Democrats hold power. The allure of obstruction is an compelling to minority Democrats as minority Republicans (the early Bush accomplishments were actually more bipartisan than Obama’s, though that was because Democrats controlled the chamber rather than because Bush was the gracious and cooperative type).

I don’t argue this point to be churlish. You can understand the problems of the Senate in two ways. The first is that it’s a problem of party discipline. The second is that it’s a problem of rules. If you think it’s the first, the answer is to put resources and effort into mounting a primary challenge against Ben Nelson. If you think it’s the second, then the answer may be to put time and energy into repealing the Byrd Rule, or lowering the filibuster limit, or making it easier to replace chairman, or otherwise transforming the structural incentives that makes legislative success such a delicate and unlikely outcome and thus allows individual Senators to exert so much control over it. Moreover, if you think it’s the second, you can actually make something of a bipartisan argument, rather than a purely partisan one. The Senate, as currently composed, doesn’t work for Republicans any better than it works for Democrats. And it really doesn’t work for the country. And that’s probably an easier argument than trying to convince Nebraskans that Ben Nelson’s incredible power isn’t good for them.

We have already seen and may yet see more progress from this Congress – the ConservaDem backlash to using budget reconciliation, for example, may just be a pose to force Republican compliance. But I think I lean more toward this being a structural problem requiring structural solutions, particularly in the Senate. The country really cannot afford a set of rules that tilt so heavily in favor of the status quo, especially in this time of profound challenges. In fact, the resultant reaction we’ve seen continually by the executive branch is to usurp the power of the Congress in the name of getting something done, which is unadvisable. Only by empowering Congress to actually act can we really have equal branches of government.