Monday, June 22, 2009

Why the Senate Sucks at Doing Anything

As you may have noticed following this blog or politics in general, the Senate is the place where good legislation goes to die or get made crappier. Matthew Yglesias recently had a few posts were he made some great points about today's Senate:

Continuing on yesterday’s theme, if you add together the two Republican Senators from Wyoming with the one from Alaska, one from South Dakota, one from New Hampshire, two from Maine, two from Idaho, two from Nebraska, one from Nevada, two from Utah, two from Kansas, two from Mississippi, one from Iowa, two from Oklahoma, two from Kentucky, one from Louisiana, two from South Carolina, and two from Alabama, the 28 of them collectively represent (on a system in which you attribute half the population of a given state to a senator) 11.98 percent of the American population.

Meanwhile, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein together represent 11.95 percent of the American population.

Now of course Texas is also a big state (though at 7.81 percent of the population it’s a lot smaller than California) and there are small states (like Vermont and North Dakota) that have two Democratic Senators. So the point here isn’t a narrowly partisan one, though the wacky apportionment of the Senate does have a partisan valence. The point is that this is an unfair and bizarre way to run things. If you consider that the mean state would contain two percent of the population, we have just 34 Senators representing the above-average states even though they collectively contain 69.15 percent of the population. The other 66 Senators represent about 30 percent of the people. If the Iranians were to succeed in overthrowing their theocracy and set about to write a new constitution, nobody in their right mind would recommend this system to them.

Then you add in the filibuster…

On the current use of the filibuster:

Marc Ambinder reports that there will be no recess appointments for Dawn Johnsen or Harold Koh:

The true culprits, though, are Republicans, who refuse to allow the Democratic majority to pass the nominees through the Senate by unanimous consent, which would require 50 votes. Non-unanimous consent implies a full debate, which Republicans intend to use to reduce the policy-making energy of the Democratic majority. If the Democrats bring a controversial nominee to the floor, Republicans will filibuster, knowing that there aren’t 60 aye votes. That would eat up precious legislative time.

I continue to be a little bit astonished by how little attention the political establishment is giving to the implications of the routinization of a 60-vote supermajority requirement for all Senate business. This is a very new “tradition” in American governance, it goes against everyone’s common understanding of how democratic procedures are supposed to work, and there’s very little reason to believe that the results will be beneficial in the long run. The fact that the Democrats currently hold 58-59 Senate seats is, I think, to some extent clouding people’s thinking about this. It’s quite rare for either party to have a majority that large. And the implication of the currently evolving norm is that a new president with a 54 or 55 copartisans in the Senate could find himself completely unable to confirm vast numbers of subcabinet nominees, rendering the country essentially ungovernable.

Meanwhile, the administration and the Senate leadership seems to be shockingly ineffective in bringing attention to this. Consider especially the case of Johnsen, who’s apparently being filibustered on the grounds that she’s pro-choice. How is it that Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, both pro-choice Senators from a pro-choice state that voted for the Democratic Presidential nominee in 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008 feel they can participate in this obstruction with impunity?

Not too much to comment on here, other than the fact that I share his frustrations at both the undemocratic structure of the senate as well as the current "everything needs 60 votes" era. It sure would have been nice if Democrats played that game while Bush was busy destroying the country.

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