How a dysfunctional mess can still get things done

HOW A DYSFUNCTIONAL MESS CAN STILL GET THINGS DONE…. In the wake of George Packer’s “The Empty Chamber,” the dysfunction and paralysis of the United States Senate is the subject of renewed interest. That’s a good thing — the simmering institutional reform efforts need all the help they can get.

The Senate is an exasperating mess that struggles to legislate at all, which not only fuels public frustrations and cynicism, but quite literally undermines the nation’s ability to address serious problems. This assessment isn’t new, but as the abuses and breakdowns become more common, the institutional flaws become more glaring.

Or do they? There’s a case to be made — and a fairly persuasive one at that — that the current Congress has been as successful as any in several decades. For all of its many problems, this Senate, in just 18 months, passed health care reform, Wall Street reform, the Recovery Act, student loan reform, Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, Hate Crimes Prevention Act, new regulations of the credit card industry, new regulations of the tobacco industry, and a national service bill, and confirmed two Supreme Court justices while they were at it. If the process was completely, irreparably broken, these victories wouldn’t have happened.

With this in mind, Jill Lawrence takes a contrarian view and argues that the status quo in the Senate isn’t so bad after all.

It’s an impressive record, but it has not been treated that way. Part of the reason is that the journey has been ugly. McConnell and his crew are on track to match their 2007-08 record of forcing 139 cloture votes to end filibusters, while Democrats are taking the usual steps — compromises, cajoling, cringe-worthy deals — to forge onward. Every move by each side is dissected 24/7 by countless armchair analysts on blogs, talk radio and cable TV.

Lawrence’s larger point seems to be that those demanding reform are proposing solutions to a problem that doesn’t exist. The Senate is frustrating, she says, “but hardly stagnant.”

As one of those annoying people who whines incessantly about the Senate, I’ll concede that the point has some merit. This Senate has achieved a great deal, and really is the most successful of my lifetime. It’d be a mistake to argue otherwise.

But I’m still not persuaded by Lawrence’s argument. The legislative breakthroughs have occurred despite the Senate’s ridiculous system, but the victories are hardly a justification for a broken institution.

There are a few points to consider that Lawrence omitted. For one thing, the Senate Democratic majority is unusually large — at 59 seats, it’s the biggest majority for either party in 30 years. Even at 59-41, the Senate has just barely been able to pass major bills, but therein lies the point — a 55-45 Senate should be able to tackle major challenges, too. As we’re learning, that’s no longer the case. The country can’t wait for once-in-a-generation majorities in order to pass important proposals.

For another, consider just how close the recent breakthroughs have been. The margins have been razor thin on nearly every key bill that’s passed, and a handful of instances in which the ball bounced the other way — Coleman edges Franken, Specter isn’t driven out of the GOP, Lieberman switches caucuses — would have made all of the achievements impossible. The success of the Senate shouldn’t be dependent on a handful of happy coincidences.

Finally, also note that while the Senate has successfully passed several, but not all, of the “big” bills, it routinely fails at everyday tasks, such as confirming the executive branch with qualified nominees. These common breakdowns are so common, it’s easy to forget them while major breakthroughs eke out narrow wins.

I give Harry Reid and the leadership a lot of credit for the accomplishments of the last 18 months, but these victories only obscure what I’m afraid is still plainly true: the Senate is in desperate need of reform.