It’s the institution, not the personalities

IT’S THE INSTITUTION, NOT THE PERSONALITIES…. In his column today, David Broder agrees that the Senate is failing as legislative body. Noting George Packer’s much discussed piece, “The Empty Chamber,” the Washington Post columnist notes with a degree of sadness what’s become of the chamber.

But Broder believes Packer overlooked an institutional problem:”Packer does as good a job as I have ever read of tracing the forces that have brought the Senate to its low estate. But he does not quite pinpoint the crucial factor: the absence of leaders who embody and can inculcate the institutional pride that once was the hallmark of membership in the Senate…. [I]t would be so much easier if there were leaders ready to lead.”

I obviously can’t speak for Packer, but I suspect this wasn’t part of his piece because it’s not nearly as important as Broder thinks it is.

For Broder, the Senate is failing, not because of institutional/framework flaws, but because of personalities — if there were Senate “leaders,” like the ones we had in the old days, the chamber could function.

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But that’s a deeply flawed misdiagnosis. As Jon Chait noted, “In Broder’s mind, the “crucial factor” is simply personal. There are no leaders. In the old days, there were leaders, now there aren’t. The solution is to somehow get more leaders in the Senate who can inculcate their members with institutional pride, then things will return to the way they worked forty years ago. In other words, Broder looks at data like this and sees an institution that has simply had fewer and fewer good leaders as time has gone on.”

But Broder’s vision is belied by actual events. The parties have become more ideologically cohesive; Republicans have become more extreme; and procedural, obstructionist tactics that were once rare have become routine, bringing paralysis to a chamber that was designed to function by majority rule.

In 2009 — just that one year — there were more filibusters than in the entire 1950s and ’60s combined. Seriously. “Leaders ready to lead” isn’t the problem here.