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Politics on the March
August 8, 2010 2:22 PM   Subscribe

How broken is the Senate? George Packer asks in his New Yorker piece, "The Empty Chamber."
posted by Trochanter (44 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
Why doesn't Harry Reid require someone refusing to yield the floor to actually filibuster.

It's his prerogative right?
posted by Talez at 2:35 PM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's less of a stalemate than about childish right-wing obstructionism while Rome burns, the final consequence of a two-party system that spends the rest of its time chasing corporate funding.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:42 PM on August 8, 2010 [12 favorites]


Ok, I'm really depressed now.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 2:43 PM on August 8, 2010


So broken that reform is seriously needed. The need for a Senate is still clear, but the rules and the culture should undergo a sweeping overhaul.

Some great quotes here:

There's the institutional game playing:

[S]enators these days direct much of their creative energy toward the manipulation of arcane rules and loopholes, scoring short-term successes while magnifying their institution’s broader dysfunction.

There's the ridiculous procedural complexity:

The most pervasive authority over the institution is not the Constitution or the Bible but, rather, an impenetrable sixteen-hundred-page tome, by Floyd M. Riddick, called “Senate Procedure: Precedents and Practices,” which only the late Robert Byrd, of West Virginia, was known to have read in its entirety. The procedures are so abstruse that a parliamentarian must sit below the presiding officer and, essentially, tell him or her what to say.


There's the lack of any reasoned discourse:

[A Senator] could remember witnessing only one moment of floor debate between a Republican and a Democrat. “The memory I took with me was: ‘Wow, that’s unusual—there’s a conversation occurring in which they’re making point and counterpoint and challenging each other.’ And yet nobody else was in the chamber.”
[Another Senator] could not recall seeing a senator change another senator’s mind. “You would really need a good hour or two of extensive exchange among folks that really know the issue,” he said. Instead, a senator typically gives “a prepared speech that’s already been vetted through the staff. Then another guy gets up and gives a speech on a completely different subject.” From time to time, senators of the same party carry on a colloquy. . . that has been scripted in advance by aides.


There's the unbelievably corrupting influence of campaign financing and monied lobbying:

Nothing dominates the life of a senator more than raising money. [One Senator] said, “Of any free time you have, I would say fifty per cent, maybe even more,” is spent on fund-raising. . . . " [Another Senator] insisted that the donations are never sufficient to actually buy a vote, but he added, “It sucks up time that a senator ought to be spending getting to know other senators, working on issues.”


And there is the lack of basic amity, much less any ability to strike reasoned compromises:

Encumbered with aides, prodded by hourly jolts from electronic media, racing from the hearing room to the caucus lunch to the Power Hour to the airport, senators no longer have the time, or perhaps the inclination, to get to know one another—least of all, members of the other party.


A huge change is needed -- and long overdue.
posted by bearwife at 2:44 PM on August 8, 2010 [7 favorites]


Both Alexander and Gregg said that the Senate had been further polarized by the rising number of senators—now nearly fifty—who come from the House, rather than from governorships or other positions where bipartisan cooperation is still permissible.

It is astonishing to me how many Americans subscribe to the bullshit notion that if there was simply more "bipartisan" cooperation, things would be better. The most destructive, anti-democratic, and asinine laws and policies of the past few years have all enjoyed broad bipartisan support. Financial deregulation, the Patriot Act, disastrous perpetual war, our overseas empire of bases, the continuation of the failed War on Drugs - to name but a few - are all "bipartisan" in nature.

And people want MORE of this shit?
posted by Despondent_Monkey at 2:56 PM on August 8, 2010 [25 favorites]


The voice of Stuart Smalley filled the chamber: “The time of the senator has expired.”

Really, New Yorker? I expect higher behavior from you than this.
posted by hippybear at 2:57 PM on August 8, 2010 [4 favorites]


Well, the cartoon makes a very persuasive point- look at their wacky fat faces!

But let's face it, the US Senate works amazingly well. Amazingly. Compared to most other governing bodies in the world today, or historically. There's almost total transparency. Corruption is frequently ferreted out, and charges are brought. The level of discourse is amazingly civil- especially when compared to other countries where literal brawls break out.

Of course things could be better. But there's nothing really shocking or interesting or new here- certainly nothing worth throwing out an entire system of government over.
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:06 PM on August 8, 2010 [4 favorites]


Furthermore, why on Earth would I want my senators "getting to know" other senators? I mean that sounds good, if you don't stop to think for a second about what representative democracy actually is.

They are there to represent the interests of their constituents. The Senate is not meant to be a collusion of 100 rich men and women making deals with their friends. That's the very antithesis of democracy.
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:12 PM on August 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


There's almost total transparency.

What the fuck are you talking about?
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 3:14 PM on August 8, 2010


And last but certainly not least, anyone who has paid the least bit of attention to US politics since the 90s knows that the biggest problem we face BY FAR is the unchecked expansion of Executive powers, started by Clinton, continued by Bush and Cheney, and proceeding unchecked under Obama.
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:14 PM on August 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


Similar to campaign finance reform, how does the citizenry convince a body like the Senate to reform the very rules which enforce its culture? I think it's an idea whose time has come, but the past few decades have shown that it's nearly impossible to get a group of people who have an investment of maintaining the status quo to actually do anything which would radically change the very atmosphere they breathe.

I just don't know how any change will ever happen. That is a bit depressing.
posted by hippybear at 3:15 PM on August 8, 2010


What the fuck are you talking about?

That article refers to a case going to the Supreme Court and has nothing to do with the Senate. Also, it's printed in a newspaper.
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:16 PM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


every mention of Jim Bunning makes me grind my teeth. It's astonishing to me that he's been in politics since 1977 and got re-elected or advanced to higher office again and again and again. That means thousands and thousands of people substantially agree with one of the most mean-spirited men in America.

"Later that month, Bunning spent several days and a late night on the Senate floor, filibustering to prevent benefits from being paid to millions of unemployed Americans. When Merkley tried to reason with him, Bunning responded, “Tough shit.” (Eventually, Republicans persuaded Bunning to stop.)"

... and so on
posted by toodleydoodley at 3:18 PM on August 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


McConnell to Franken: This isn't 'SNL'
posted by homunculus at 3:19 PM on August 8, 2010


McConnell to Franken: This isn't 'SNL'

No, because the Senate is a much greater farce than anything the SNL writers could ever possibly create.
posted by Despondent_Monkey at 3:22 PM on August 8, 2010 [7 favorites]


But let's face it, the US Senate works amazingly well. Amazingly.

This is really about different defintions of "works". Your argument that it works because a) there is no physical fighting, b) we know about and punish at least some of the corruption (of course, we can't know what proportion), and c) presidents have done worse stuff than Congress really sets an insanely low bar, if you ask me. I mean, yes, sure, America isn't North Korea either. Well done America!

And the point is not really that senators should be friendlier and more generous to each other, per se, either. The Senate is broken because, as Packer's article emphasizes, its most fundamental rules and procedures were created in a time when senators were friendlier and more generous to each other, as a matter of fact, and this allowed the body to use its rules and procedures to get things done. It has now been hijacked by a party with no interest in the old culture (working in a bipartisan, friendly way), but a very strong interest in exploiting the old procedures to bring governing to a standstill.

You can change the culture or the procedures, but you have to change one of them.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 3:28 PM on August 8, 2010 [11 favorites]


That article refers to a case going to the Supreme Court and has nothing to do with the Senate.

Well the article has everything to do with the Senate if one reads between the lines. In particular, within the context of the hastily implemented banking bailout that began under Bush, it has to do with lack of oversight by either the House or the Senate of the Federal Reserve (oversight that many senators are now demanding: see the link in my previous post), and also with the secrecy that surrounded this bailout from the moment Paulson proposed it (largely in secret, and while threatening financial collapse if the banks were not given emergency funding).
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 3:29 PM on August 8, 2010


But let's face it, the US Senate works amazingly well. Amazingly.

Compared to what? A flea circus?

They are there to represent the interests of their constituents.

Which they do ever so well.

The Senate is not meant to be a collusion of 100 rich men and women making deals with their friends. That's the very antithesis of democracy.

You mean it's not meant to be what it currently is? I thought you said it worked "amazingly" well?
posted by blucevalo at 3:46 PM on August 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


We're about back to caning.

Keith Poole's stats show both chambers more polarized than since Reconstruction.
posted by warbaby at 3:54 PM on August 8, 2010


No man's life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session.
Judge Gideon J. Tucker
If by 'broken' you mean not passing laws, I'll take it.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 3:58 PM on August 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


And last but certainly not least, anyone who has paid the least bit of attention to US politics since the 90s knows that the biggest problem we face BY FAR is the unchecked expansion of Executive powers, started by Clinton, continued by Bush and Cheney, and proceeding unchecked under Obama.

And so you believe that having an incompetent, dysfunctional echo chamber of a legislature is unrelated to the lack of checks on the expansion of one of the other branches of government?
posted by crayz at 4:09 PM on August 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


If by 'broken' you mean not passing laws, I'll take it.

Right, because leaving the status quo in place except in cases where existing power structures are sufficiently concerned with their own welfare as to entice and coerce the passage of a giant sausage of a law, that's the way to run a country
posted by crayz at 4:12 PM on August 8, 2010 [7 favorites]


Mark Twain: "It is the will of God that we must have critics, and missionaries, and Congressmen, and humorists, and we must bear the burden."
posted by cirripede at 4:24 PM on August 8, 2010


The last major reform of Congress was Speaker Thomas Reed's abolition of the "disappearing quorum."

There's a nice chapter on it in Tuchman's The Proud Tower.

Unfortunately, it requires someone to attain power in the body who is both principled and not a mediocrity. The lack of reform testifies to the rarity of excellence and principles among the leadership.
posted by warbaby at 4:32 PM on August 8, 2010


When I was much younger I had a theory. Nobody that wanted to be a politician should be allowed to be a politician. I thought that there should be some kind of conscription where intelligent people would have to spend time in office.

Of course I grew older and realized the folly of the whole idea. I might have gotten the germ of the idea from a Stanislaw Lem story.

Now of course I'm much too wise to believe that it would be a legitimate way of running a government.

Right? Stupid idea. Right? Right?


posted by Splunge at 4:35 PM on August 8, 2010


Splunge, I had a similar idea regarding politicians taking a life-long vow of poverty.
posted by brundlefly at 4:44 PM on August 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think it's kind of good that the Senate can't really get shit done, tbh.
posted by empath at 5:02 PM on August 8, 2010


It's not only money for campaigns that they're after:

A 2004 study of the results of stock trading by United States Senators during the 1990s found that that Senators on average beat the market by 12% a year. In sharp contrast, U.S. households on average underperformed the market by 1.4% a year and even corporate insiders on average beat the market by only about 6% a year during that period. A reasonable inference is that some Senators had access to – and were using – material nonpublic information about the companies in whose stock they trade.

Under current law, it is unlikely that Members of Congress can be held liable for insider trading. The proposed Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act addresses that problem by instructing the Securities and Exchange Commission to adopt rules intended to prohibit such trading.

posted by 445supermag at 5:04 PM on August 8, 2010 [7 favorites]


It's a great article, but kangasaurus already linked to it in a comment in the thread on constitutional reform.
posted by GeckoDundee at 5:05 PM on August 8, 2010


I always thought making the salary of presidents and Congress-persons be the exact median of the current American population's salary would be nice; they'd pull what, 35k now? Or less?

Anyway, if they wanted to make more, they'd have to make policies that helped increase the median wage; no voting themselves pay raises.

The conscription model was used in the Kim Stanley Robinson Mars books, I believe; not for all of govt but for most of it. You got called up like for jury duty and had to go.
posted by emjaybee at 5:07 PM on August 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


I like the suggestion near the end of rewriting the Senate rules from scratch--the "constitutional option" that Sen. Udall is pursuing. The author describes a couple other reform efforts in the same section, then quotes Sens. Gregg and Alexander claiming there are no problems with the Senate and that Democrats will "get over it quicker" if they fall out of power. No kidding. It's fun to throw a wrench in the works when you're the ones sitting on the sidelines. Weren't the Republicans the ones trying to bring up "the nuclear option" when they were frustrated by Democrats blocking Bush appointees? Isn't it clear that the minority holds altogether too much power in this body?

But it seems this is less about the actual arcanities of Senate rules and procedures and more about how broken politics in general is. The beginning of the article paints quite a different picture, and I don't personally know if that's rosy-colored nostalgia or what, but what I wouldn't give for a genuinely deliberatively body where intelligent men and women tried to actually convince each other of their points rather than scripted party talking points back and forth.

I didn't see it mentioned, though the author spends a good bit of time meandering through Senate history, but it's clear the problem is direct election of senators. It makes them political animals, slaves to polling and party chairpeople and lobbyists. Repeal the 17th amendment!
posted by kjh at 5:14 PM on August 8, 2010


Anyone who really wants to put this in perspective, read the opening chapter of Master of the Senate, Caro's biography of LBJ. It's basically an overview of the Senate's history. The institution was designed in such a way as to be a "bulwark against populism," and has succeeded admirably both in sense both positive (holding out against demagogues and popular hysterias) and negative (staving off popular reform and guarding the gates of big business against the population at large).
posted by AdamCSnider at 5:21 PM on August 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


emjaybee: I always thought making the salary of presidents and Congress-persons be the exact median of the current American population's salary would be nice; they'd pull what, 35k now? Or less?

Problem is, you'd still end up with a legislature full (even more than now) of already wealthy individuals who'd be totally mystified as to how the working stiff can't make ends meet on 35K per annum.
posted by hangashore at 6:23 PM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


at this point in our history we really need two congresses. One to advocate for the benefit of corporations (our current congress will do just fine for that) and another to advocate for the benefit of individuals.
posted by any major dude at 6:27 PM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


hippybear: I just don't know how any change will ever happen. That is a bit depressing.

In "Empire of Illusion," Chris Hedges says:
As the public begins to grasp the depth of the betrayal and abuse by our ruling class; as the Democratic and Republican parties expose themselves as craven tools of our corporate state; as savings accounts, college funds, and retirement plans become worthless; as unemployment skyrockets and home values go up in smoke, we must prepare for the political resurgence of reinvigorated right-wing radicals including those within the Christian Right. The engine of the Christian Right -- as is true for all radical movements -- is personal and economic despair.
I think some sort of change is coming. I don't think it's a change for the better.
posted by Trochanter at 6:50 PM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Senators, by and large, are just talking heads any more. Their insanely large staffs do all the work, massage the info, and hand off canned speaking points to them - which they then regurgitate. No fuss, no muss, no real intellectual heavy lifting.

I am certainly pissed these days that the Senate has become so obviously dysfunctional - but what really gets me is how many times (apparently) I know more about proposed legislation than the fucking senator being interviewed.

Something needs to change.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 6:50 PM on August 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


Trochanter: Yes, a similar vision of right-wing takeover of government is envisioned in Year Zero, Nine Inch Nails' dystopian concept album and ARG. It's shockingly possible, frightening to envision, and with the rise of the Tea Party etc, all too likely. Trent's fictional takeover becomes complete in 2022. But the central message of his artwork was we have to act NOW to keep it from happening. I just don't know where to start.
posted by hippybear at 6:58 PM on August 8, 2010


How ya like me now, Nash equilibrium?
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:09 PM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


I just don't know where to start.

I'm clutching at straws, and it ain't much, but I believe there might be one ray of hope. Because the Tea Party is so off-putting to status quo republicans, and the GOP has kept electing demagogic fools to pander to them, I think Obama is safe in '12 pretty much no matter what. There will never be a better time to cast serious votes for Nader. The lesser of two evils argument won't hold. It's a limited time offer, and it's not much of a hope, but it might get some of these elephants in the room at least talked about.
posted by Trochanter at 7:26 PM on August 8, 2010


How does voting for Nader affect change in Senate procedure and culture? He won't even be running for office in the same branch of government (if he does run).
posted by hippybear at 8:41 PM on August 8, 2010


I'm not saying it's much, just that it would amplify the voice of someone who is at least raising these issues. Because, again, these issues of systemic dysfunction aren't even being discussed.
posted by Trochanter at 10:11 PM on August 8, 2010


Related: America Goes Dark; What collapsing empire looks like
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 1:23 AM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


How broken is the Senate?

How broken is democracy? That's a better question.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 1:41 AM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


One question -- how come we only get articles warning of "gridlock" and a "failing senate" when the Dems have trouble passing their legislation?
posted by AdmiralAdama at 1:38 PM on August 16, 2010


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