Michael Tomasky on the problems of the Senate
Michael Tomasky published a helpful essay, "The Specter Haunting the Senate," in the New York Review of Books (9/30/10).
–"The truth is that no institution of American government is more responsible for our inability to address pressing national problems than the Senate, and no institution is in greater need of reform. Another truth, alas: probably no institution is more resistant to reform."
–"While all this is of concern to liberals at the moment, the problem of the Senate should trouble all citizens. Any party with a president and fifty-nine senators (counting the two independents who caucus with the party), not to mention a seventy-eight-seat House majority, ought to have a fair chance to enact its programs. It would need minority input, to be sure, but the specter of a minority veto, which some founders warned against, would not loom over all deliberations, as is the case today, thanks largely to the cloture rule. In fairness to both parties, when they have a decent-sized majority, they should not have to muster a supermajority. Chances of passing legislation without one, slim as they are, hinge on dispensing with current myths about the Senate. There are four chief myths."
–"The first myth is that the founders wanted the upper house to follow the principles of supermajorities, such as the sixty votes now needed to end debate on a measure."
–"The second myth is that the founders specifically sanctioned the filibuster."
–"The third myth is that the Senate has consistently opposed any and all attempts to cut off debate and reform its procedures; that senators want things just the way they are."
–"The final main myth is to be found in the so-called “little-harm” thesis. Defenders of the filibuster maintain that the supermajority requirement really hasn’t had much impact on the work of the Senate after all; it has killed legislation only rarely, and in several cases, its defenders maintain, it has improved legislation, making it more acceptable to the American public, cooling hot tea just as Washington envisioned"
–"I can readily believe that this [growing time pressure on senators, compared to 30 years ago] is a factor, and perhaps an important one. It is surely one reason why we never see Mr. Smith–style filibusters anymore (another being, I think, fear by the minority of criticism in the press). But surely polarization is the main reason. If the current Republican caucus of forty-one senators included, say, twelve or fifteen moderates rather than the two to four who are there now, the demands on their time would be unchanged, but surely the health bill would have received a few GOP votes.
–"What we have now, as Madison and Hamilton warned, is minority rule, with the Senate majority paying the political price for the gridlock as problems and crises go unaddressed."