Shining a light on the institutional problem

SHINING A LIGHT ON THE INSTITUTIONAL PROBLEM…. Harold Meyerson notes the paralysis that has overcome the political process, and points to a Senate in need of institutional reform.

A catastrophic change has overtaken the Senate in recent years. Initially conceived as the body that would cool the passions of the House and consider legislation with a more Olympian perspective, the Senate has become a body that shuns debate, avoids legislative give-and-take, proceeds glacially and produces next to nothing.

The problem, in part, is that Republicans have routinized the filibuster. They have given their leader, Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, the power to bring virtually all legislation to a halt…. Establishing a new normal: If we have anything to do with it, nothing moves. Unless you can get a 60-vote majority to end debate, all major bills (and some minor ones) are dead in the water.

Meyerson notes the Democrats’ three great governing opportunities/challenges of the last century. The first was in 1933, when FDR and a Democratic Congress delivered on a New Deal. The second was in 1965, when LBJ and a Democratic Congress advanced the Great Society. The third is right now. And while the first two saw a flurry of legislative successes that came to define a generation, 2009 isn’t working out the same way — partly because Republicans have embraced obstructionism on an unprecedented scale, partly because some Democrats are conservatives who are comfortable with failure, and partly because of legislative procedural hurdles that FDR and LBJ didn’t have to worry about.

Steven Pearlstein notices the problem, too.

Because of the quaint traditions of the upper chamber, there are today scores of top positions in government that routinely remain unfilled for months because one senator or another has decided to put a “hold” on a nomination. And on any controversial issue, and even some that are not, 60 votes are now required to overcome the threat of endless “debate” and actually pass a piece of legislation, along with 60 votes on as many amendments as senators can dream up.

It’s gotten to the point now where all it takes to kill something in the Senate is the mere threat of a filibuster, without anyone actually having to mount one…. Despite what you hear from legislative leaders, there is nothing preordained about this wholesale disregard for majority rule. In fact, it violates the letter and spirit of the U.S. Constitution, which expressly delineates a limited number of instances in which anything other than a majority vote is required. And it makes a mockery of Senate rules and precedent, which for nearly two centuries were grounded in a tradition of comity and mutual respect between majority and minority.

Matt Yglesias noted this morning, “I’ve gotten a few queries over the past week asking me to go beyond mere whining about the sorry institutional set up in the United States Senate to asking if there’s anything that can be done about it. The answer is that yes there is. Key elements of Senate procedure have been altered repeatedly throughout history and there have been failed efforts to do it that might have worked had folks been a bit more determined. What’s missing right now is any sign from anyone politically important of any interest in turning up the heat.”

Which is a) one of the reasons I keep writing about it; and b) why I’m glad to see columns like these from Meyerson and Pearlstein. The political establishment considers the status quo to be normal, routine, and legitimate. It’s none of those things. As Pearlstein noted, “most days” the D.C. insiders “barely notice how utterly ridiculous and ineffective the legislative process has become.”

Facing extraordinary crises and challenges, the United States has a legislative branch that is barely able to legislate at all. The system can see the problems, but is struggling badly to address them. The first step in changing the way Congress operates is creating the demand — most of the public has no idea that the Senate no longer operates by majority rule. Public frustration can lead to proposals, which can lead to debate, which can lead to solutions.