Talking up institutional reform

On the surface, there are all kinds of intimidating challenges facing the country. Just below the surface, there are deep partisan and ideological divisions, fueled in part by Republicans’ refusal to compromise, that make policymaking difficult, if not impossible.

But just below that is another problem: a dysfunctional system and broken institutions that make the process itself badly flawed. Most Americans almost certainly aren’t aware of the procedural minutiae — cloture votes, motions to proceed, pro-forma sessions, etc. — and just want Washington to be able to complete basic tasks.

I was glad, then, to see President Obama spend some time in the State of the Union address talking about institutional reforms that generally go overlooked.

“I recognize that people watching tonight have differing views about taxes and debt; energy and health care. But no matter what party they belong to, I bet most Americans are thinking the same thing right now: Nothing will get done in Washington this year, or next year, or maybe even the year after that, because Washington is broken.

“Can you blame them for feeling a little cynical?

“The greatest blow to confidence in our economy last year didn’t come from events beyond our control. It came from a debate in Washington over whether the United States would pay its bills or not. Who benefited from that fiasco?

“I’ve talked tonight about the deficit of trust between Main Street and Wall Street. But the divide between this city and the rest of the country is at least as bad — and it seems to get worse every year. […]

“Some of what’s broken has to do with the way Congress does its business these days. A simple majority is no longer enough to get anything — even routine business — passed through the Senate. Neither party has been blameless in these tactics. Now both parties should put an end to it. For starters, I ask the Senate to pass a rule that all judicial and public service nominations receive a simple up or down vote within 90 days.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, said they think this is a great idea. Republicans, of course, will balk.

Still, though my standards are probably too low, I was encouraged to at least see this put on the national radar screen. How often do national addresses like these remind the public that the Senate no longer operates by majority rule?

Even if there’s no progress on these issues anytime soon — and there almost certainly won’t be — the more of the public hears about efforts to improve the dysfunctional and broken institutions, the better.