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Institutional Parameters Matter

Via Paul Bedard in the Washington ExaminerReport: Democrat-controlled Senate laziest in 20 years

In her latest report, Secretary of the Senate Nancy Erickson revealed a slew of data that put the first session of the 112th Senate at the bottom of Senates since 1992 in legislative productivity, an especially damning finding considering that it wasn’t an election year when congressional action is usually lower.

For example, while the Democratically-controlled Senate was in session for 170 days, it spent an average of just 6.5 hours in session on those days, the second lowest since 1992. Only 2008 logged a lower average of 5.4 hours a day, and that’s when action was put off because several senators were running for president, among them Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain.

On the passage of public laws, arguably its most important job, the Senate notched just 90, the second lowest in 20 years, and it passed a total of 402 measures, also the second lowest. And as the president has been complaining about, the chamber confirmed a 20-year low of 19,815 judicial and other nominations.

The Secretary of the Senate’s office didn’t comment on the statistics, but it did provide a comparison to action in 2009, the first term of the 111th Senate, when many of President Obama’s initiatives were considered by the Democratically-controlled House and Senate. By comparison the number of Senate bills offered last year was down 30 percent, the number of amendments offered sank 55 percent, and the number of roll call votes dropped 40 percent.

Now, I understand that the Washington Examiner is interested in making this simply a partisan issue (the word “lazy” in title in part of the tip off there), but I think what the above reflects are some pretty fundamental institutional issues.  Specifically we are seeing the combination of symmetrical bicameralism* with each chamber controlled by a different partisan majority as well as the fact that the Senate has become, for all practical purposes, a super-majority body.

To wit:   Where is the motivation to pass legislation in a given chamber if that legislation will be blocked by the other chamber?  Granted, there is some utility is passing bills just to send signals even if it is known that the bill will die (hence the attempt to pass the “Buffett Rule” knowing full well it is unlikely to leave the Senate and certainly will never leave the Congress).

However, more important than the issue of the barrier that is the House, the bottom line for the US Senate is that it has become one that requires, for almost all business, a supermajority of votes (i.e., 3/5th or 60%).   This gives an operative veto to the minority.  In other words:  as long as 41 Senators are willing to hold firm, most of the business of the Senate can be blocked.  Such a circumstance would make legislating less likely and hence affect the chamber’s output.

This super-majority threshold in the Senate coupled the known predisposition for the House to be unlikely to agree with the Senate, means that there is a profound disincentive to legislate in the Senate specifically (and in the Congress in general).  This is less, therefore, about difficult to pin down variables like “leadership” and very much about the structural conditions under which our legislature functions (or, in fact, does not function).

Indeed, going back to the column quoted above, the reason that “ the chamber confirmed a 20-year low of 19,815 judicial and other nominations” is because the minority is using the aforementioned veto power.  Laziness is not the issue.

I would note that the dynamic in the Senate is likely to be long-term one, because in the absence of a 60 vote majority, or some change to rules (or the application of those rules), the minority is going to be powerful veto player regardless of which party is in that minority.  Indeed, we desperately need to reform the filibuster rules and other minority prerogatives in the Senate as they are key problems in our inability to govern.

I suppose that some might argue that the less we get from the Congress, the better.  However, I would note that we face real issues that need addressing we appear to have dysfunctional Congress (especially the Senate) incapable of dealing with those issues.  This is not a good thing.

We need to better understand how all these factors work together rather than pretending like it would all be perfect if only our team was in charge.

——–

*Symmetrical bicameralism means a legislature with two chamber with equal legislative powers.  This is simple a way to say that all laws passed in the United States must pass in identical form in both chambers.

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About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor and Chair of Political Science at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. He is the author of Voting Amid Violence: Electoral Democracy in Colombia and is currently working on a comparative study of the US to 29 other democracies. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging at PoliBlog since 2003. Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. An Interested Party says:

    I wonder why Republicans would even want to gain a majority in the Senate at this point, as the Democrats will surely do to them what they have been doing to the Democratic majority…oh, and Steven is exactly right about the Washington Examiner…it would be the same thing is something from NRO or the Washington Times was being quoted…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  2. Ron Beasley says:

    With a House controlled by Tea Baggers why would anyone even attempt any constructive legislation.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  3. walt moffett says:

    And we wonder why more power accrues in the Executive branch and who benefits from a jammed up Congress.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  4. bains says:

    Now, I understand that the Washington Examiner is interested in making this simply a partisan issue (the word “lazy” in title in part of the tip off there)…

    Sure.

    I just wish that someone engaging in teaching our young folks would so readily acknowledge the partisanship displayed far more frequently, and for a by far larger audience on the other side.

    Yes, Steven, I am being snarky. But the fact remains that you only seem to be snarky yourself when the right (or right media) can be skewered. I think that is, in fact, the definition of partisan.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 8

  5. @bains: Ok, acknowledging the obvious POV of the article and then explaining institutional dyamics is partisan. Got it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  6. Or, more significantly: what did I say that was incorrect?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  7. bains says:

    @Steven Taylor: Snarky, and almost as non-responsive as my comment.

    I like it!

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  8. Jenos Idanian says:

    I suppose that some might argue that the less we get from the Congress, the better. However, I would note that we face real issues that need addressing we appear to have dysfunctional Congress (especially the Senate) incapable of dealing with those issues. This is not a good thing.

    Count me in that camp. As the saying goes, “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session.”

    The House passed quite a few bills (including a budget) that the Senate let die. And I’m not convinced that having an “underperforming’ Senate is preferable to a “hyperactive” legislaure.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  9. mattb says:

    @bains:

    @Steven Taylor: Snarky, and almost as non-responsive as my comment.

    Nice. You do realize that you just admitted that:
    a. your initial comment was non-responsive
    and
    b. that Steven’s response, while snarky, was still more responsive than your initial non-responsive comment.

    And conservatives wonder why many of us keep pining for thoughful conservative commentators.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  10. John D'Geek says:

    @Steven Taylor:

    Indeed, we desperately need to reform the filibuster rules and other minority prerogatives in the Senate as they are key problems in our inability to govern.

    The question is “how?”. Especially given the war-like nature of our congressional relationships, where we are dangerously close (metaphorically speaking) to the same “procedural rules” used during the French Revolution.

    Perhaps picking a nit, I am of the opinion that politicians cannot govern — only statesmen* can do that.

    * – Interesting to note that this word is so unimportant in modern culture that there has been no attempt (to my knowledge) to make it politically correct.

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  11. al-Ameda says:

    Unproductive? Hardly.

    From the liberal perspective I’d say it was very productive, as Senate Democrats did not pass any of the legislative initiatives that were brought forth by the Republican House.

    From a conservative perspective I’m sure they’d say it was productive too, as Senate Republicans prevented Senate Democrats from doing what they wanted.

    Win/Win.

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  12. mattb says:

    @John D’Geek: Agreed. To @al-Ameda’s point, there’s little desired to reform the filibuster given that each party knows that at some point they will be in the minority.

    This is the same problem as the expansion of executive authority. While the party out of power decries it, they have very little desire to change things when they are in power.

    Looking more broadly, this may demonstrate the greatest long term challenge of a two party system. One has to wonder how things might be different if we had a more coalition based government.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  13. al-Ameda says:

    @mattb:

    Looking more broadly, this may demonstrate the greatest long term challenge of a two party system. One has to wonder how things might be different if we had a more coalition based government.

    Well Matt, the kind of people who forged coalitions are being forced out (or are leaving in disgust or frustration). These are hard times and they are bringing out the worst in Americans. This will not continue indefinitely, but it is hard to see when the acid bath will be over.

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  14. @Jenos Idanian:

    Count me in that camp

    I am not at all surprised.

    However, in that case, I think you need to stop complaining about deficits and the debt because a Congress, as it is currently constructed, cannot deal with these issues.

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  15. @John D’Geek:

    The question is “how?”.

    The beginning is wide education of the population about what the problems are. This is hard and takes time. But until there is some level of public pressure for change (as opposed to, as is the case at the moment, cheering in favor of these rules–see Jenos above) there will be no change.

    We ought to be more upset than we are about the obstructions over things like nominees to the bench, for example. I think that much of this is linked to simple lack of understanding and the propensity to see politics as team sports (the metaphor I prefer to war, to be honest, as I think it is more accurate).

    Perhaps picking a nit, I am of the opinion that politicians cannot govern — only statesmen* can do that.

    I understand where you are coming from, but that simply assumes that all we need is the Right Men (or Women) in place to solve our ills. I think this is problematic for a variety of reasons., Plus, we often confer the mantle of “statesman” to a successful politician.

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  16. @al-Ameda:

    Well Matt, the kind of people who forged coalitions are being forced out

    He’s referring to coalitions of parties, which can only be relevant if we had more than two parties. Of course, creating fertile ground for more than two parties is difficult.

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  17. al-Ameda says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    He’s referring to coalitions of parties, which can only be relevant if we had more than two parties. Of course, creating fertile ground for more than two parties is difficult.

    More than 2 parties would mean much more interesting combinations for filibuster votes.

    Seriously, if the time for a third or fourth is not now, then when? A Green Party? A Moral Majority (type of) Party, A Defense Only Fiscal Party? A Libertarian Party? It takes seminal events and a charismatic person around whom a new party might coalesce. Sarah Palin is such a person, but outside the 2 parties what boutique movement could she head up – a Know Nothing Party?

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  18. @al-Ameda: Now is a great time to think about it. My basic point is, however, that the rules of the game heavily favor two parties. The method we use to elect congress is fundamentally oriented to two large competitors. The primary process then makes it worse by providing a safety valve for new movements. Why start a third party when you can just go in and win nomination within established vehicles?

    And, of course, those who currently have power have no incentive to change the prevailing rules.

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  19. MarkedMan says:

    Is this just laziness? Absolutely. The Republican party is now majority composed of people who are incapable of doing the work to necessary to understand the issues because they already ‘know’ all the answers. In reality, they are the modern know nothing party. They spend their time on abortion, guns, Solyndra, etc, because actually learning enough to improve an actual situation not only hurts their brains but, more importantly, would contradict their pre-determined world view.

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  20. MBunge says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: “The beginning is wide education of the population about what the problems are.”

    Then we are well and truly screwed. Our instruments of education, otherwise known as the media, cannot even be bothered to acknowledge these problems. And to be fair, the folks in our government often actively oppose anything that might foster such education.

    For example, the fillibuster. The media cannot and will not tell the public in clear and forceful terms that what is going on is an abuse of the fillibuster to pervert the democratic process. Even though they can say the Democrats started it under Bush the Younger, the fact that they know have to primarily blame one side (Republicans) for the current dysfunction is something our news leaders refuse to do. And the Democrats in the Senate are really no better. All that is needed to resolve this problem is for the Senate majority to require fillibusters to actually take place, instead of merely allowing the threat of fillibuster to serve as the real thing. A fillibuster in real time would provide the media with an almost irresistable “hook” for the story and since an occurring fillibuster would shut down the Senate until it was resolved, pressure would inevitably build on each side until some sort of compromise would be forced down their throats.

    Mike

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  21. mattb says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    My basic point is, however, that the rules of the game heavily favor two parties. The method we use to elect congress is fundamentally oriented to two large competitors.

    THIS! As a byproduct of a lot of reading over the last few years — of which OTB has been a key factor — I’ve come to the belief that election reform is the first and most crucial stage to transforming our political system.

    It’s clear that the current, extremely expensive, primary based system, especially in today’s climate, is only exacerbating issues that have been with us since the beginning.

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  22. Jenos Idanian says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: That’s why I’m so looking forward to November. It’ll be my chance to make some small effort towards changing things.

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  23. mattb says:

    @Jenos Idanian:
    I really don’t think you understood what Steven meant.

    His point is that shifts in the partisan makeup of the Senate have little to no effect — unless one party gains a super majority. Given that the Democrats *barely* managed that in a “landslide” year (2008), there’s little chance that the Republicans/Conservatives will do it in the visible future (or for that matter that the Dems might accomplish it either).

    Short of changes to the senates by-laws (which neither party really supports) or a move back towards a willingness to compromise (something that both parties are interested in at the same time) nothing is going to change.

    The minority party, regardless of who it is, will block the majority party at every turn. The majority will put up with it because they know that using the nuclear option would mean that they’d lose out when they become the minority party in the future.

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  24. mantis says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    That’s why I’m so looking forward to November. It’ll be my chance to make some small effort towards changing things.

    What do you expect to happen? Ponder a hypothetical: Republicans win the White House and a 51 seat majority in the Senate, and keep their House majority. If the filibuster rules stay as they are, the Democrats are in place to filibuster everything and prevent much legislation from passing, just as Republicans are doing now. After the Republicans unprecedented use of the filibuster to prevent legislation from seeing a vote, there is little doubt that the Democrats would return the favor if the tables are turned. So even though Republicans could hold both chambers and the White House, we would be in much the same situation we are now.

    If you think your vote in November will change anything, even in a small way, you are delusional. The only ways to see anything happen differently is to give one party the White House, the House, and a supermajority in the Senate (extraordinarily improbable at this point), or for the Senate to reform the filibuster. What change, exactly, do you imagine you will foster in November?

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  25. Moosebreath says:

    mantis (and mattb),

    I suspect that in your hypothetical where Republicans have the White House, the House and a majority but less than 60 votes in the Senate, they will suddenly realize that compromise is not a dirty word, and will find enough Democrats of the Mary Landrieu/Ben Nelson variety to get most, if not all, of their desires enacted. And the so-called liberal media will be cheering them on, in exactly the same way they did during Bush the Younger’s first term when he was able to get so many of his policies enacted. Sorry, but the Democrats have not had the unity to filibuster everything in sight in my lifetime.

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  26. mantis says:

    @Moosebreath:

    Sorry, but the Democrats have not had the unity to filibuster everything in sight in my lifetime.

    You make a good point, but I believe that after the Republicans behavior in the 111th and now 112th congresses, the Democrats will have a bit more spine and unity than before. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking on my part.

    I do think you’re absolutely right that if the Democrats did what Republicans have been doing, the media would be all over them, day in and day out, for their obstructionism, whereas they largely ignore or excuse that of Republicans.

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  27. mattb says:

    @mantis & @Moosebreath:

    I believe that after the Republicans behavior in the 111th and now 112th congresses, the Democrats will have a bit more spine and unity than before.

    I’m not sure spine will have anything to do with it.

    The political narrative — on the Hill — will be that an obstructionist Congress can bring down a popular/likable President. Given that, I don’t see how the Democratic senator’s don’t take a page from McConnell’s book and make their number on job making sure Romney is a one-term president.

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  28. Moosebreath says:

    mattb,

    “I’m not sure spine will have anything to do with it.”

    Of course it will. The next Congress will include as Democratic Senators people like Joe Manchin, whose campaign was specifically pitched to be in opposition to Obama, as well as people like Mary Landrieu and Max Baucus and Tim Johnson and Mark Pryor, who have never shown any willingness to fall into line with their party and never deviate. Many of them will come from states that Romney will carry, often with at least 60% of the vote. When you add all of that to the studies showing Democratic voters want their representatives to get things done, even at the cost of purity (as opposed to Republican voters for whom the opposite applies), the pressure to cut separate deals will be huge.

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  29. @Moosebreath: Of course, much of the issue will be (assuming the GOP wins control) is what their margins will be. From there the issue is not whether the Dems have total unity, it will be whether there is a block of 41 votes. As such, a 51-49 Senate in the GOP’s favor means that they will still need a consistent 9 Dems to vote with the majority. This strikes me a difficult to achieve, although you are correct: there do appear to be a handful more Democrats willing to be swing voters that there are Reps (as the Reps have actively chased such members out of the party, yes?).

    BTW: you are making a pretty solid case that the specific problem with the Senate at the moment is a unified GOP minority.

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  30. mantis says:

    BTW: you are making a pretty solid case that the specific problem with the Senate at the moment is a unified GOP minority.

    That’s the specific problem, but only insofar as that unified minority has taken advantage of structural problem. Reform the filibuster and you can restrict the legislative minority’s ability to obstruct the business of Congress. Easier said than done, of course, but that is the root problem.

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  31. @mantis:

    That’s the specific problem, but only insofar as that unified minority has taken advantage of structural problem. Reform the filibuster and you can restrict the legislative minority’s ability to obstruct the business of Congress. Easier said than done, of course, but that is the root problem.

    I totally agree.

    I really see no justification for the current state of affairs from a theoretical or philosophical point of view save that one simply believes that the minority should have a veto over all legislation.

    That notion flies in the face of democracy (as well as in the face of having a “representative republic” as some people prefer to call it).

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  32. Moosebreath says:

    Steven,

    “BTW: you are making a pretty solid case that the specific problem with the Senate at the moment is a unified GOP minority.”

    Yes, I think that is correct. Other than the massively unpopular attempted privatisation of Social Security which was never brought to a vote, the Bush the Younger Administration achieved substantially all of their legislative goals, generally through compromise (No Child Left Behind), avoiding filibuster, even though the final votes were largely on party lines (Medicare Part D, which only received 54 votes to pass) or involved items which were not subject to filibuster (tax cuts), in spite of the Democrats controlling the Senate for about 3 of his 8 years, and always having well more than 40 votes.

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