Senate’s Death Spiral

Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin Senate Photo 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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. glasnost says:

    This is a Republican-driven phoenomenon. The Republicans of the late 90’s were the first to block unprecedented numbers of federal court appointments. The Republican minority of today has filibustered more bills in the 06-08 than any congress in post-WWII history. And then there was, of course, the ‘nuclear option’. Those are three gigantic pathbreaking decision sets. What is there to compare on the Democrats’ side – imitations of the same behavior, years after the Repubs showed how it was done (court appts). And..?

    There’s no way you can make a serious list of the behavior on each side and not see the Republicans as consistently dominating in envelope-pushing aggressiveness. And that has been the prime driver of senate breakdown – no majority will infinitely tolerate the essential running of the building by the opposition party and not eventually seek to emulate the behavior.

    So it is systemic in a sense, but it’s a system dynamic driven by the impetus of a single determined entity. The system part is that escalation breeds escalation.

    Novak is, of course, not here to figure out the problem, but to blame Democrats.

  2. James Joyner says:

    glasnost: The Republicans were the MAJORITY party from 1995-2007, with a brief interegnum caused by the Jeffords defection. And many trace the start of the current spiral to the Bork hearings in 1986.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    Interesting coincidence—one of my posts this morning touched on the weak Congress.

    IMO the underlying problem is that the value of being a member of the House or Senate has exceeded the value of doing anything as a member of the House or Senate. People don’t run for Congress to achieve an objective. They run to get the seat. Once they’re in they run to hold the seat.

  4. Bithead says:

    A few points, here:

    Glasnost, as is his wont, blames the Republicans for this happening. However, even a cursory look at the surface of the thing, reveals the exact opposite to be true.

    glasnost: The Republicans were the MAJORITY party from 1995-2007, with a brief interegnum caused by the Jeffords defection. And many trace the start of the current spiral to the Bork hearings in 1986.

    Indeed. And let’s recall, please that the majority was so thin as to be laughable, particularly when measured not by R’s and D’s but by right vs left… and yes, I contend these are two vastly different measurements.

    That said, though; let’s pull back for a larger view, here. I’m sure Glasnost will tell us that this kind of stuff never really occurred when the Democrats were in power for most of 60 years. And to some degree, that’s a valid observation. But then again, the political domination of the Democrats… their political power… wasn’t being threatened to the degree it is today. What we are seeing, here is the response of Democrats when their power is under threat.

    As you say, James,

    Traditionally, though, extraordinary measures were reserved for extraordinary occasions. Increasingly, everything is considered extraordinary.

    This rabid, frothing politization of everything, every single issue, is of a kind with and part and parcel of our national discussions of the housing ‘crisis’ the credit ‘crisis’ the global warming ‘crisis’, ad nauseum. Everything becomes a crisis because to the Democrat party, it IS a crisis… but one of their power, rather than they issue they’re talking about. The Democrats have become rather expert in the art of fear mongering. Prime example: “We’re all going to burn up, the ice caps are melting, polar bears are drowning, ohhhh but you can helllpp…)

    And it started, not with the Bork hearings, (though that certainly was a high point) but with the failure of the uber-liberal Jimmy Carter, and resulting election of Ronald Reagan. That Reagan was the success he was, causes even more liberal angst, more threat to leftist power. (And I await the responses from the threatened, who will denounce me, Reagan, etc in an attempt to re-write history and diminish those facts… they too, are a threat to liberal power.)

    Ever see a raccoon backed into a corner? Look at the Democrats of today and tell me there’s a difference.

    Add to that, that the phenom you speak of, is quite similar indeed, to the kind of rulings you get when using the extraordinary as a basis for case law. And, isn’t it the left who, apparently not trusting the people, uses the courts on the basis of such case law to work it’s will, as it did with the Gitmo ruling, yesterday?

    What I’m suggesting is that the proximate cause of what Novak notes, is quintessentially leftist.

  5. Hal says:

    The Republicans were the MAJORITY party from 1995-2007

    A rather *slim* majority. A slim majority, by coincidence of course, which leads to precisely this kind of divided government.

    Don’t the civil libertarians view this as the best of all possible worlds? Seems to me that close margins do precisely what James points out: everything is extraordinary. You get what you pay for.

    Hey, if you don’t like mutants, stop growing them in toxic waste.

  6. Bithead says:

    Some have. I’ve gotten into arguments with the Q&O bunch about that point in the past. Gridlock, they call it. Problem is, gridlock really ins’t a way t keep government under control. Rather, it has a tendency to produce singularly bad laws.

  7. Yashmak says:

    Pointing fingers and saying “They started it!” helps nothing.

    But it’s all anyone does on the Hill these days. No surprise then that the comments here seem to reflect that same sentiment.

  8. Hal says:

    Pointing fingers and saying “They started it!” helps nothing

    Correct analysis of the disease is the first step to a cure. Saying “it’s everyone’s fault” tells us nothing, helps nothing and obscures the analysis.

  9. Steve Plunk says:

    I must disagree with the idea “it’s the institution, not the man, that’s the problem”. Institutions are made of men and controlled by men. Reid is one in a long line of men who have ruined this institution and soiled it’s credibility as “the greatest deliberative body in the world”. The double speak and half truths emanating from the senate sickens me every day. What I would give for a straight talking one term senator.

    The Democratic leadership can hardly be considered a serious group of people. For gosh sakes they debated a non winnable global warming bill rather than address the current oil crisis that is killing our economy. Fiddling while it burns.

  10. Bithead says:

    Correct analysis of the disease is the first step to a cure. Saying “it’s everyone’s fault” tells us nothing, helps nothing and obscures the analysis.

    The truth, in the end, is never non-partisan.

  11. anjin-san says:

    The Senate, as an institution, has been in decline since Howard Baker left. A quiet guy who made a big difference.

  12. Hal says:

    Well, I must say that I do find it hilarious that people believe that other people, who have wildly different ideas, should be able to come together and compromise like gentlemen. The simple fact is that we have differences. These differences generate a lot of heat. The fact that it is messy and cantankerous is no surprise. Politics is a civilized substitute for simply beating the crap out of each other.

    Fainting like princesses is a tactic, just like yelling and screaming is another tactic. Whining like babies when things get personal and heated is another tactic, but more akin to a third grade playground.

  13. […] QC Nostradamus Predicts . . . . . . the future of Congress: […]

  14. Eneils Bailey says:

    “The facts show that the Senate is realistically dysfunctional.”

    Wish that was true, Arlen; then all of you, in both parties, could go home.

    I run my own business, and it is a continuing guessing game to try to understand and stay ahead of government regulations and requirements. I am on the last major project of my working career, two to three more years.
    If I were thirty years old today, and knowing what I know now, I don’t think I could go out into the world of business and put in the same effort and achieve the same success. I am up to my armpits with government regulations, thanks to jerks like Arlen.(plenty of, and bigger suspects in the democrat party, also)
    I guess some people look at the increased regulations as a protection of workers and the consumers. Some do, some don’t. Most don’t.
    These regulations have turned employees and myself into useless followers, automatons of the Federal government.

  15. It would be shortsighted to imagine that the Senate just recently became a partisan institution. While things have tended towards more mean-spirited partisanship vis-a-vis the opposition since Majority Leader Mitchell was in charge, I don’t see this as a Republican or a Democratic thing.

    It is also important to keep in mind that the House and the Senate are two very different bodies with very different rules and purposes in the legislative branch. The myth of the Senate is that it is more deliberative, congenial, and supposed to act as a brake on the more reactionary impulses of the House. I’m not sure how valid that myth remains today.

    Personally, I still think the pendulum is oscillating wildly and unpredictably in response to the Democrats loss of control in the 90’s after 40 years of virtually owning Congress. Hard to call that just a Republican or a Democrat problem.

  16. James Joyner says:

    I must say that I do find it hilarious that people believe that other people, who have wildly different ideas, should be able to come together and compromise like gentlemen.

    I think they should behave as gentlemen, yes. That doesn’t mean they have to compromise willy nilly.

    What Specter’s talking about here are procedures deliberately designed to forestall prevent and the crafting of sensible compromise, though. Certainly, there are issues where people feel strongly and are diametrically opposed. For the most part, though, the differences are over where precisely to draw the line.

    Presumably, Specter wanted to add amendments to help achieve Boxer’s desired outcome of incrementally improving environmental regulation. By “filling the tree,” though, Reid ensured that the bill would go down in flames but that Democrats would have an issue.

  17. Hal says:

    Reid ensured that the bill would go down in flames but that Democrats would have an issue.

    Quell surprise! Imagine! Politics being played in a hotly contested election year! It’s almost unheard of.

    Geebus. They’re not yelling, screaming and casting about Gallic terms or anything. They are doing the gentlemen’s thing and politely sticking a knife in the back instead of a more rousing “FU” and a middle digit prominently displayed.

    Seriously, WTF? Did little Allen Specter, just five years old, just figure out this was happening?

    I mean, it’s not like they outed a NOC CIA agent just to get back at a husband’s op ed or something.

  18. Bithead says:

    Did little Allen Specter, just five years old, just figure out this was happening?

    Think Reid, given reversed tables, wouldn’t have his people screaming?

    PLease

  19. Hal says:

    Think Reid, given reversed tables, wouldn’t have his people screaming?

    Well, considering that’s the way it’s been for – oh, I don’t know – five YEARS, perhaps you could come up with some comparative examples rather than your traditional “hold the flashlight under your face and speak obtusely in a spooky voice”, insinuation strategy.

  20. glasnost says:

    glasnost: The Republicans were the MAJORITY party from 1995-2007, with a brief interegnum caused by the Jeffords defection. And many trace the start of the current spiral to the Bork hearings in 1986.

    Yes. Please pardon the misstatement. My point is not really affected. As for Bork – that’s not a trend. That’s the rejection of a single supreme court justice. In the past three decades, Democratic-led senatorial actions have rejected *one* Supreme Court Justice and confirmed… six from Republicans? Starting with Reagan?

    You fundamentally didn’t challenge my point. The filibustering and the federal court blocking were Republican innovations. And Kevin Drum points out today that the “amendment-tree filling” was brought out of obscurity by Bob Dole. If that’s a lie, you can show it with statistics. Otherwise, Novak is blustering and misrepresenting, which surprises me not in the slightest.

    This is a Republican-driven phoenomenon. The logic at work should be obvious, listening to Republican pundits blame democrats for failures to break cloture, while the republicans are the people voting no!

  21. Bithead says:

    Well, considering that’s the way it’s been for – oh, I don’t know – five YEARS, perhaps you could come up with some comparative examples rather than your traditional “hold the flashlight under your face and speak obtusely in a spooky voice”, insinuation strategy.

    You’ve got that a little reversed, don’t you?

  22. Hal says:

    WTF? Dens have only been in the majority since Jan 2007. Who do you think was in control for the previous years?

  23. Bithead says:

    So? Why limit yourself?
    Add his constant screaming on GWB, and even YOU oughta be able to come up with something of the sort. Meanwhile, I’m not getting into the ‘quotes, please’ nonsense with you.

    As for Bork – that’s not a trend. That’s the rejection of a single supreme court justice

    Well, let’s try Justice Thomas, and draw a line between the two to pick up a trend. True, he managed to get confirmed, but not until after the Democrat Dirt Machine had it’s way. Matter of fact, just about any Republican nominee since Nixon has run the liberal litmus gauntlet. Some, (Roberts for example) have managed to placate the left long enough to get confirmed. Some others, like Bork, have not.

    More history, perhaps is needed. Let’s try looking at a few others. Ever heard of G. Harrold Carswell? Or perhaps Clement F. Haynsworth, Jr.?

    And should we also address the kind of nominees Republicans have been forced to put forward by Democrat game playing?

  24. Hal says:

    Add his constant screaming on GWB, and even YOU oughta be able to come up with something of the sort. Meanwhile, I’m not getting into the ‘quotes, please’ nonsense with you.

    Yea, why bother actually proving your point when you can simply lie your sorry ass off.

    Geebus, Bithead. What a loser.

  25. Bithead says:

    I’ve noted that to be a word you use all too frequently for it not to be a projection.

  26. Hal says:

    Um, I don’t think I’ve ever used that word here. I’d ask you for links to the comments to back up your claim, but we already know you’re not going to back up your assertions with actual facts.