Institutional Parameters Matter
The Senate didn't have a productive 2011. Is this just a case of laziness?
Via Paul Bedard in the Washington Examiner: Report: 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.