The Voice Of The Senate Institutionalist

by Jonathan Chait | August 5, 2010

One frustrating problem with the dysfunction of the Senate is that Senate institutionalists have no capacity to grasp the structural forces causing the current mess. Here is a perfect example. David Broder, the voice of institutional Washington, reads George Packer's long article on Senate dysfunction and comments:

Packer does as good a job as I have ever read of tracing the forces that have brought the Senate to its low estate. But he does not quite pinpoint the crucial factor: the absence of leaders who embody and can inculcate the institutional pride that once was the hallmark of membership in the Senate.

In Broder's mind, the "crucial factor" is simply personal. There are no leaders. In the old days, there were leaders, now there aren't. The solution is to somehow get more leaders in the Senate who can inculcate their members with institutional pride, then things will return to the way they worked forty years ago. In other words, Broder looks at data like this:

...and sees an institution that has simply had fewer and fewer good leaders as time has gone on.

A more realistic analysis holds that the South's post-Civil War racial Apartheid system created a highly unusual arrangement in which political parties were not sorted out ideologically -- some of the most right-wing members of Congress were Democrats, and many progressives were Republicans. In that atmosphere, party ties had a very weak hold on individual members, especially Senators. Thus it was possible for social norms to encourage cooperation and limit the use of the filibuster to very rare occasions, usually involving civil rights.

A few days ago, I made an analogy to baseball. Suppose teams were allowed to put two extra players in the field in the wanted, but the social expectation was that they'd do so only rarely, when they really needed to get an out. You might be able to enforce a norm like that in a family picnic softball game. But if that were the rule in Major League Baseball, eventually every team would be playing 11 fielders all the time.

Two factors have made bipartisan cooperation impossible. One is ideology. Zero, or almost-zero, Democrats shared George W. Bush's goal of transforming Social Security from a social insurance program into a network of individually held, defined-contribution retirement accounts. Very few Republicans shared Barack Obama's goals of providing universal health insurance and limiting carbon dioxide emissions. Moreover, for those who might share such goals, they face strong incentives to stay in line with their party in the form of potential primary challenges and sheer partisan incentive. If Republicans gave Obama bipartisan support, then Obama's policies would become popular, as would Obama, which would make it much harder for Republicans to retake the majority.

So even if the institutionalist analysis of what went wrong is true -- and I'm deeply suspicious of analyses that revolve around the premise that people had more moral fiber back in the good old days -- there's no solution. They're asking Senators to act in direct contravention of their own political interest. As Jon Tester, an opponent of filibuster reform, says, "I think we need to look to ourselves more than changing the rules.”

Of course, for all the odes to the Senate and the wisdom of the founders, the system wasn't really premised on the notion that elected officials would ignore their self-interest. The founders did not imagine political parties, even though the system they created made parties inevitable. If you want a system to work, you need to align the political incentives of elected officials with the public interest as best as possible. Accepting a tension between the public good and politicians' interest and simply hoping that the better angels prevail is a recipe for failure.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/jonathan-chait/76804/the-voice-the-senate-institutionalist