1. having the function of deliberating, as a legislative assembly
2. having to do with policy; dealing with the wisdom and expediency of a proposal
What struck me about Packer's article is, as Sen. Merkley mentions in the article, is how there really isn't any deliberation. There isn't debate. There's posturing, procedural maneuvering, and pedantic speeches given to CSPAN cameras, but no deliberation.
The Senate has been reduced from what de Toucheville once described as a place where "they represent only the lofty thoughts [of the nation] and the generous instincts animating it, not the petty passions," to a place where arcane rules are wielded to grind everything to a halt.
I think there are 3 reasons for this:
2) Eternal Elections
3) A perversion of well-intentioned rules
The Constant Cash Scramble
I once read that a Congressperson needs to raise $10,000 per week from the moment they take office in order to be competitive in the next election. The infusion of money into the political system is not new, but the seeming acceleration of that infusion should frighten people. Sure every voter gets a vote, but how is that going to compete against a few million dollars from a specific industry with a targeted agenda? The Senators now serving have to play to these interests because this is where the big dollars are coming from. That means a lot of little favors that snowball into big hurdles for really moving things forward.
The Eternal Election
If you watch cable news, when's the last time you heard "possible presidential candidate, so and so?" Our media has become captured by the horse race and so have our elected officials. For the Senate that means really just three days of legislating every week. It also means the senators aren't talking to each other. They aren't spending time together. This isn't a wish for Harry Reid and Richard Shelby to go skipping down the Capitol steps together, but if you don't know someone how can you hope to negotiate with them? If you don't trust, don't know enough to respect them how do you deliberate anything? What's clear from Packer's article is you don't.
Most of us know there's a rule in the Senate that any senator can place an anonymous hold on an appointee and that rule has been used rather frequently (and frivolously) in the recent past. What I did not know until reading Packer's article was that the hold was originally intended to give a Senator that had to travel some distance (on horseback no less) to hold up confirmation until they could ask the appointee questions. It was never intended to be an instrument to hold an administration hostage. This is one example of several that Packer outlines where rules with good intentions have been perverted to satisfy a senator's "petty passions."
So what do we do about it?
If these are the main reasons (I'm quite certain there are others) then what is to be done to change things? First, we have to start taking the money out of politics. The Supreme Court set us back with that with the Citizens United decision. I, like many liberals, disagreed with that decision for one main reason. The decision, in essence, equated money with free speech. I think this is a dangerous precedent and a threat to a democracy. If we are truly a country of "one person, one vote" then we need to ensure that the rules of campaigns and fundraising follows along similar lines. This would allow senators to think grander and not feel so beholden to special interests.
Second, we need the media to stop reporting the horserace and start reporting the issues. There's a disincentive to do this. The horserace is cheap to report, flashy, and constantly evolving to satisfy the appetite of a news cycle that people feel the urge to constantly feed. But if the consumer demanded more, if it was as much about policy as it is about personality we would be taking a step in the right direction.
Third, the Senate needs to take steps to fix itself. This is probably the hardest and most perplexing aspect. The only people that can make the Senate more efficient are the same people that made it inefficient. There are some freshmen senators with an eye towards a rules change, but the old-timers are hesitant and as the freshmen become the old-timers they will likely be co-opted by the system they currently loathe. The Senate has the power to change, perhaps it lies in the people to give them the will.
The cynic in me figures there will be a rash of blog posts (not unlike this one) decrying the Senate and urging change. That drum beat will quickly fade and nothing will happen. The optimist in me thinks that maybe these young guns in the Senate will force some change. The revolutionary in me thinks we're reaching a tipping point in our government, a dangerous tipping point where the people see the ineffectiveness of government and lash out against it. This could be a time of renewal and positive realignment where Congress can get back to the people's business. But there is so much anger, so much rage focused on an enemy, but not an alternative that this realignment could be a major step backward.
We did this to ourselves. We are all of us complicit in the degradation of a once deliberative body. We have the power to make the changes needed. Do we too have the will? The humility? The attention span?
David Broder steals my line. Irrelevant that his was published before mine.