How broken is the U.S. Senate?

Senate Rule XXVI, Paragraph 5, requires unanimous consent for committees and subcommittees to hold hearings after two in the afternoon while the Senate is in session.  The Republicans had turned this old rule into a new means of obstruction.

Harry Reid controls the Senate’s schedule, but Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, who is the Minority Leader, can object. Since nearly everything in the Senate depends on unanimous consent, the main business of the place is a continuous negotiation between these two men.

The Senate has been referred to as “the world’s greatest deliberative body.”  But the amount of real deliberation, in terms of exchange of ideas, seems very limited.  The floor of the Senate is where the theatrics occur, not conversations which make point and counterpoint and challenge each other.  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.  While these speeches are given their colleagues aren’t even around.  The presiding officer of the Senate — freshmen of the majority party take rotating, hour-long shifts intended to introduce them to the ways of the institution — sits in his chair on the dais, and the only people who pay attention to a speech are the Senate stenographers.  Between speeches, there are quorum calls, time killers in which a Senate clerk calls the roll at the rate of one name every few minutes. The press gallery, above the dais, is typically deserted, as journalists prefer to hunker down in the press lounge, surfing the web for analysis of current Senate negotiations; television screens alert them if something of interest actually happens in the chamber.

While senators are in Washington, their days are scheduled in fifteen-minute intervals: staff meetings, interviews, visits from lobbyists and home-state groups, caucus lunches, committee hearings, briefing books, floor votes, fund-raisers. Each senator sits on three or four committees and even more subcommittees, most of which meet during the same morning hours, which helps explain why committee tables are often nearly empty, and why senators drifting into a hearing can barely sustain a coherent line of questioning. All this activity is crammed into a three-day week, for it’s an unwritten rule of the modern Senate that votes are almost never scheduled for Mondays or Fridays, which allows senators to spend four days away from the capital.

Nothing dominates the life of a senator more than raising money.  Tom Daschle once sketched a portrait of the contemporary senator who is too busy to think: “Sometimes, you’re dialing for dollars, you get the call, you’ve got to get over to vote, you’ve got fifteen minutes. You don’t have a clue what’s on the floor, your staff is whispering in your ears, you’re running onto the floor, then you check with your leader—you double check—but, just to make triple sure, there’s a little sheet of paper on the clerk’s table: The leader recommends an aye vote, or a no vote. So you’ve got all these checks just to make sure you don’t screw up, but even then you screw up sometimes. But, if you’re ever pressed, ‘Why did you vote that way?’—you just walk out thinking, Oh, my God, I hope nobody asks, because I don’t have a clue.”

How many rules of senatorial procedure are relics from days gone past?  How often do we have to hear about the Senate being deadlocked before we expect something more and better from our elected officials?  How much of what actually happens on the floor of the Senate makes a mockery of public policy?



Filed under Playing Politics, Political Reform

15 responses to “How broken is the U.S. Senate?

  1. Some say the Senate has 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.

  2. Vice-President Joe Biden, in his autobiography, recalls that, in the seventies, a bipartisan group of senators and their wives hosted a monthly dinner: “In those days Democrats and Republicans actually enjoyed each other’s company.”

    You know how much easier it is for us to discuss disagreements because we know each other, because we trust each other and respect one another? Don’t you think the same would be true of any group of people?

  3. How much is done by aides and staff? I’d like to take a look at how much is done by the person who was elected. Do the lobbyists know who to court, who to buy, who has influence?

  4. The person who is elected is valuable only because s/he is the only one who can vote (in the Senate). The lobbyists well know, fnord; kind of analogous to athletic recruiting at the major college level. (Hint: it’s the mother the coach needs to sell.)

  5. What is the effect of anti-government conservatives?

  6. The minority party anthem. Seems not to make as much difference which party, just the one in the minority, although the current batch of GOP have taken it to an extreme I hadn’t seen before.

  7. GMC70

    The sky is falling! The sky is falling!

    Really? The adage of “those who enjoy sausage or law should not watch either being made” is decades old, but it’s always been true. Pick any era, and legislatures seem disfunctional, burdened by arcane rules.

    This one is no different.

    Much of the Senate floor grandstanding fnord notes is due to CSPAN; those speeches to empty chambers are made for the purpose of CSPAN cameras, pitching to the folks back home, creating footage that can be used at election time (or, if one’s not careful, used by an opponent!) or for fundraising. And the Senate has always been a place for grandstanding – this isn’t particularly new, just a new way to do it.

    And while we bash lobbying, please remember it is a constitutionally protected activity: . . . “to petition the gov’t for a redress of grievances;” US Constitution, Am. 1. As usual, we divide the petitioners between us and them. We tend to think that the petitioners WE favor are for “the people” and serve the “pubic interest” (another mythical creation – there is no such monolithic thing as “the people,” or “a” public interest, and never was), while those who’s interests we oppose are “lobbyists” supported by those “eeeeeeevil” corporations.

    Remember – there is nothing new under the sun. All of this has happened before, and will happen again.

    And further, always remember: Congress was not intended to be efficient. Gov’t itself was not intended to be efficient. The “gridlock” we decry was written into the system intentionally – to limit gov’t. In a very real way, gridlock isn’t a flaw of our system; it’s a feature.

    In most cases, the best thing gov’t can do is nothing.

  8. After C-SPAN went on the air, in 1979, the cozy atmosphere that encouraged both deliberation and back-room deals began to yield to the demands for transparency. I don’t think we gained greater transparency but the posturing certainly increased. This is when filibusters began increasing in numbers, when the Senate’s rules were used more often to tie up progress on ideological reasons, when business as usual meant routinely blocking the confirmation of executive and judicial appointees, and when we began the alternating between the party controlling the Senate. Don’t like what’s happening, give the other party their chance — wash, rinse, repeat.

    I like what voters in Australia did this past week — deadlocked, didn’t elect either side. Seems a better solution to getting their attention and making them face up to the fact that voters don’t like either choice.

  9. There was a Letter to the Editor in today’s paper that addressed the subject of what government does. The writer asked us to think about, even list, what strong government provides. I congratulate the writer and agree completely! Here is the letter —

    “Strong government

    When I think of the history of human beings, I see a movement toward more governance, not less. All the great religions, for example, are attempts in part to manage our impulses by rewarding “the good” and shunning “the bad.” Eventually, as secular management took hold, the strongest governments provided (and still provide) unimaginable benefits for their citizens, while weak governments are ineffectual against enormous misery and violence.

    It behooves each citizen then to sit down, look around your town, and make a list of all you enjoy that exists because of strong government. Only then will you understand the absurdity of anti-government rhetoric.”

    Read more:

  10. The Republican majority Senate under GW Bush completed ignored their duties of oversight and executive power grew because they allowed it, because they seemed too busy to do their jobs. Now they want another chance. Have they told us what they’ll do differently?

  11. In late winter of 2006 my son was invited to Washington DC to be part of a panel of experts — Keeping the Promise of Stem Cell Research.

    During this time he also spoke with legislators, and more often members of their staffs who were assigned the task of telling the legislator how they should vote. He told me that when you left the House of Representatives and went to the Senate the IQ level raised 10 points. I wonder if he would have the same opinion today?

  12. In 1917, Woodrow Wilson, with his wartime legislative agenda blocked by filibusters, forced the Senate to pass Rule XXII, which allowed a two-thirds majority to bring a floor debate to an end with a “cloture” vote. For decades, the rule was rarely used; between 1919 and 1971, there were only forty-nine cloture votes, fewer than one per year. In the seventies and eighties, the annual average rose to about a dozen. (Frustration with this increase led the Senate, in 1975, to lower the threshold for cloture to sixty votes.) In the nineties and early aughts, the average went up to twenty-five or thirty a year, as both parties escalated their use of the filibuster when they found themselves in the minority. After the Republicans lost their majority in 2006, filibusters became everyday events: there were a hundred and twelve cloture votes in 2007 and 2008, and this session Republicans are on target to break their own filibuster record.

  13. itolduso

    Stem cell research update

    (Reuters) – A U.S. district court issued a preliminary injunction on Monday stopping federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research, in a slap to the Obama administration’s new guidelines on the sensitive issue.

    The court ruled in favor of a suit filed in June by researchers who said human embryonic stem cell research involved the destruction of human embryos.

    Judge Royce Lamberth granted the injunction after finding the lawsuit would likely succeed because the guidelines violated law banning the use of federal funds to destroy human embryos.

    “(Embryonic stem cell) research is clearly research in which an embryo is destroyed,” Lamberth wrote in a 15-page ruling. The Obama administration could appeal his decision or try to rewrite the guidelines to comply with U.S. law.

    The suit against the National Institutes of Health, backed by some Christian groups opposed to embryo research, argued the NIH policy violated U.S. law and took funds from researchers seeking to work with adult stem cells.

    The U.S. Department of Justice, White House and NIH had no immediate comment.

    Key to the case is the so-called Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which Congress adds to budget legislation every year. It bans the use of federal funds to destroy human embryos.

    • Saved from research!

      So they can be destroyed out back in the incinerator where no one needs to acknowledge what is happening.

      There’s going to need to be some changes at fertility clinics! Yep, will people be locked up in jail? Will infertile couples be charged exorbitant fees to store those leftover blastocysts?

      Good! It’s needs to be addressed and the hypocrisy exposed!