Senate’s Death Spiral
Bob Novak writes about the depressing death spiral of the United States Senate. He uses a floor speech from Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter to illustrate the point.
Specter departed from Senate self-congratulation: “The American people live under the illusion that we have a United States Senate. The facts show that the Senate is realistically dysfunctional. It is on life support, perhaps even moribund. The only facet of Senate bipartisanship is the conspiracy of successive Republican and Democratic leaders to employ this procedural device known as filling the tree. It is known that way to insiders, and it is incomprehensible to outsiders.”
The device was used last week when Reid called up the bill to control global warming, producing the state of futility that has haunted Reid’s year and a half as majority leader. Characteristically, Reid neither found support to pass this bill nor attempted a compromise with opponents. Debating an energy tax as gasoline prices hit four dollars defied political logic. But Sen. Barbara Boxer, chairman of the Environment Committee, insisted. Reid bowed to her.
To prevent his Democratic colleagues from facing difficult amendments, Reid filled the tree with interlocking amendments that stave off all other proposed changes. The procedure has been used by majority leaders of both parties since 1985, but never as often as Reid. This marked the 12th time he has resorted to the device.
Even for the feckless Senate, last week was extraordinary. When Republicans contended Reid broke his pledge to confirm three of President Bush’s appeals court nominees by Memorial Day, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell retaliated by requiring the entire climate-change bill to be read into the record (consuming over 10 hours). A half-century ago when I covered the Senate under Lyndon B. Johnson, such an event would have been headline news. Last week, it was barely noticed.
Novak has been covering the Senate since well before I was born but I nonetheless believe his emphasis on Reid misses the point. Before stepping into his current post, he always struck me as a reasonable, moderate man. It’s the institution, not the man, that’s the problem.
At some point, a difference in degree becomes a difference in kind. The Senate and the president have extraordinary measures at their disposal which violate the spirit of our Constitutional arrangement but which have nonetheless been used by some of our most revered leaders. Traditionally, though, extraordinary measures were reserved for extraordinary occasions. Increasingly, everything is considered extraordinary.
The combination of 24/7 news and analysis, the “permanent campaign,” the coarsening of the public discourse, and probably several other things I’m forgetting have made everything high stakes. Presidents no longer get honeymoons and there’s no longer a period when serious work gets done in between political seasons.
Perhaps this wouldn’t be so bad if it created gridlock which prevented the passage of bad bills and stymied wanton spending. Alas, it has not. That’s because, in the absence of comity and trust, the only way to achieve “compromise” is by agreeing to everyone’s pet projects, no matter how little bearing they have to interstate commerce or the national interest.
I see no reason for hope that things will change any time soon. If John McCain wins in November he will, barring earth shattering developments, have a bitter Democratic opposition in both houses. Contrariwise, if the Democrats were to succeed in electing Barack Obama president and achieving a filibuster-proof 60 votes in the Senate, which is not inconceivable, their coalition is sufficiently diverse that remaining united on any given bill would be far from assured. And the Republicans would have every incentive to use every trick in the book to stymie any victories that would be politically useful for the Democrats.