Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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September 30, 2010

IT'S NOT JUST THE FILIBUSTER.... Not that we needed any reminders, this week offered several new examples to reinforce what has been apparent for a while: the Senate doesn't work, and its inability to function as a legislative body is seriously undermining the strength of the country.

If this were just about filibusters, it'd be easier to understand (and explain). But Ezra Klein had a very smart item yesterday on the role of unanimous consent requirements for routine institutional functions, making it possible for a lone senator to effectively shut down proceedings. The dynamic "creates a dangerous incentive for individual senators: Given that the Senate cannot function without their consent, their consent has a lot of value. And that value can be traded for things they want."

There's always been a certain amount of this stuff in the Senate, but in recent years, both individual obstruction, as manifested through holds, and team obstruction, as manifested through the filibuster, are getting worse.... As this behavior normalizes, everyone will do it. The Democrats will filibuster everything Republicans attempt. Individual senators will place larger holds more frequently in an attempt to get their way, get some media, or both. And if everyone does it, the Senate falls apart.

On some level, the Senate has always been riven by a collective action problem. If the individual senators and the two parties use the rules in the way that are rational for them, the chamber can't function. But there've been norms that held both sides, and most senators, in check. As those norms dissolve and the payoffs of obstruction become clearer to everyone, the collective restraint that allowed the Senate to function breaks down.

Several months ago, Paul Krugman had a column on 18th-century Poland, which had a legislature, the Sejm, that allowed a single member to block literally anything with a single objection. Krugman noted, "This made the nation largely ungovernable, and neighboring regimes began hacking off pieces of its territory. By 1795 Poland had disappeared, not to re-emerge for more than a century."

As should be evident after this week, the U.S. Senate is moving quickly in the Sejm's direction.

Matt Yglesias added the other day that "it's worth observing that according to Hamilton & Madison, a Polish-style national legislation is precisely what they're trying to avoid."

The American system, in other words, wasn't designed to work this way. It can't work this way. And when the Senate fails to function as a legislative body, the country's ability to compete, thrive, and respond to challenges effectively disappears.

The status quo is simply untenable.

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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Comments

But hey, it makes for great TV right? Right? Hello? Bueller?

Posted by: mikefromArlington on September 30, 2010 at 11:05 AM | PERMALINK

I don't understand. If Hamilton & Madison weren't trying to design this, why did they?

The American system was--or at least IS--designed to work this way. Saying, 'oh, there were norms in place that counteracted the design' just proves that the design is Sejm-like.

Posted by: gussie on September 30, 2010 at 11:10 AM | PERMALINK

The nightmare dysfunction of the California state government is being brought to Washington. This gets worse before it gets better.

Posted by: dan on September 30, 2010 at 11:17 AM | PERMALINK

Yesterday, the Senate Dems sold out Obama. I have had enough of Dem weasels. Going back to my independent days. Dems don't deserve to be in power.

Posted by: Alki on September 30, 2010 at 11:28 AM | PERMALINK

Can't we abolish the senate? It isn't protected by the constitution as long as we have direct representation in the house, correct?

Posted by: jw on September 30, 2010 at 11:28 AM | PERMALINK

This is why I never understood the push to reform the filibuster.

The basic fact is that the Senate works by unanimous consent. Any senator can force a vote or more debate or more procedure to get anything done.

Take away the filibuster and you still have to vote on everything, eating up time...which is partly the goal. The reason the filibuster works so effectively is that even hinting at employing it means that time will be wasted. If you don't have the votes to overcome the filibuster, then time is wasted for no reason. Regardless, time is wasted, mission accomplished for the GOP.

Posted by: tomj on September 30, 2010 at 11:38 AM | PERMALINK

I don't understand. If Hamilton & Madison weren't trying to design this, why did they? -gussie

The filibuster and hold are not their design. Granted, they gave the Senate broad leeway to set their own rules, but I fail to see any support for your position.

Posted by: doubtful on September 30, 2010 at 11:39 AM | PERMALINK

Can't we abolish the senate? -jw

It would require a constitutional amendment.

Posted by: doubtful on September 30, 2010 at 12:06 PM | PERMALINK

Y'know, if these damnable Republicans ever bring their rabid zealotry back into the majority, we as a democracy are finished. They will take the final, logical step of removing the Filibuster and the Hold as viable weapons; they will reject the restrictions placed upon them by any and all current Rules of the Senate, and the Government will become functionally dead as a dormouse.

They might even take the final step of dissolving the chamber itself, handing power over to their corporate masters, while eliminating entire swaths of the Government by simply refusing to fund anything they don't agree to in lockstep.

Imagine a very powerful and cruel King, if you will---and then imagine that King as a Corporate Oligarchy. Money is their God; Profiteering and Economic rape on the grandest of grand scales is their Bible, with Oaths of Loyalty and Statements of Faith to separate the Legions of the One True Way from the "undeserving masses, destined to die for the Cause in the new-and-improved Global War on Everything."

THAT is what's coming, if these heinous swine ever regain power....

Posted by: S. Waybright on September 30, 2010 at 12:14 PM | PERMALINK

"Several months ago, Paul Krugman had a column on 18th-century Poland, which a had legislature, the Sejm, that allowed a single member to block literally anything with a single objection. Krugman noted, "This made the nation largely ungovernable, and neighboring regimes began hacking off pieces of its territory. By 1795 Poland had disappeared, not to re-emerge for more than a century."

So Krugman is worried about Canada's irredentism or Mexican nationalism?

Talk about nutty.

Posted by: Sean Scallon on September 30, 2010 at 12:15 PM | PERMALINK

"Can't we abolish the senate? -jw

It would require a constitutional amendment.

Posted by: doubtful"

Sigh. I guess we'll have to use Angle's angle- the Second Amendment Solution". . .

Posted by: DAY on September 30, 2010 at 12:26 PM | PERMALINK

Hey, Poland had a limited government, not a bad one.

It didn't turn out well, but it was limited.

Anybody got a Gadsden flag?

Posted by: Davis X. Machina on September 30, 2010 at 12:32 PM | PERMALINK

We fought a civil war to keep the United States united, but a single Senator can rend it asunder?

Posted by: Doug on September 30, 2010 at 12:33 PM | PERMALINK

Steve, I keep telling you all these procedural problems will go away the moment there are 51 Republican Senators. All sorts of bills will pass on votes of 55-45 or 57-43 (got to love those blue dogs). And all the while whoever the minortiy leader is will just whine about how the Republicans are in the majority and there is just nothing they can do.

Oh sure there might be a big fight over a big bill or nominee but rest assured after a couple of weeks of Republican's shouting about Democrats being 'traitors' or trying to 'tear the country apart' a deal will be struck and Republicans will get pretty much what they asked for from the beginning.

Posted by: thorin-1 on September 30, 2010 at 12:49 PM | PERMALINK

That's one good example, another is the fractured California Government.

Posted by: Jamie on September 30, 2010 at 2:33 PM | PERMALINK
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