George Packer’s essay on the U.S. Senate is a characteristically superb piece of reporting. He presents an institution paralyzed by a droning uselessness that depresses and demoralizes even the leading inmates.
In general, when senators give speeches on the floor, their colleagues aren’t around, and the two or three who might be present aren’t listening. They’re joking with aides, or e-mailing Twitter ideas to their press secretaries, or getting their first look at a speech they’re about to give before the eight unmanned cameras that provide a live feed to C-SPAN2. The presiding officer of the Senate—freshmen of the majority party take rotating, hour-long shifts intended to introduce them to the ways of the institution—sits in his chair on the dais, scanning his BlackBerry or reading a Times article about the Senate. Michael Bennet, a freshman Democrat from Colorado, said, “Sit and watch us for seven days—just watch the floor. You know what you’ll see happening? Nothing. When I’m in the chair, I sit there thinking, I wonder what they’re doing in China right now?”
Between speeches, there are quorum calls, time killers in which a Senate clerk calls the roll at the rate of one name every few minutes. The press gallery, above the dais, is typically deserted, as journalists prefer to hunker down in the press lounge, surfing the Web for analysis of current Senate negotiations; television screens alert them if something of interest actually happens in the chamber. The only people who pay attention to a speech are the Senate stenographers. On this afternoon, two portly bald men in suits stood facing the speaker from a few feet away, tapping at the transcription machines, which resembled nineteenth-century cash registers, slung around their necks. The Senate chamber is an intimate room where men and women go to talk to themselves for the record.
When I read Packer’s dispatches from Iraq, I feel a stab of envy at the enterprise and courage that allowed him to see more than I’ll ever see. As I imagine him sitting for hours in the Senate gallery watching the proceedings below I think: ”Better you than me, bud.”
But I want to dissent from Packer’s main thesis – which is that it is the defects of the Senate that have stalled the Obama agenda.
On July 21st, President Obama signed the completed bill. The two lasting achievements of this Senate, financial regulation and health care, required a year and a half of legislative warfare that nearly destroyed the body. They depended on a set of circumstances—a large majority of Democrats, a charismatic President with an electoral mandate, and a national crisis—that will not last long or be repeated anytime soon. Two days after financial reform became law, Harry Reid announced that the Senate would not take up comprehensive energy-reform legislation for the rest of the year. And so climate change joined immigration, job creation, food safety, pilot training, veterans’ care, campaign finance, transportation security, labor law, mine safety, wildfire management, and scores of executive and judicial appointments on the list of matters that the world’s greatest deliberative body is incapable of addressing. Already, you can feel the Senate slipping back into stagnant waters.
That seems wrong on 2 grounds:
1) A lot of the Obama agenda has passed, actually.
2) To the extent that the agenda has not passed, the causes are bigger than the slow motion of the Senate. Look again at George Packer’s list of stalled initiatives. On how many is the American public clamoring for immediate action? On how many is the Obama agenda on the wrong side of public opinion altogether?
Like all presidents who win a big national election, Barack Obama wanted to whip as many measures through Congress as fast as possible But it’s not “obstructionism” for the Senate to decline to act like the British House of Commons, enacting whatever it pleases the chief executive to propose. There’s a big difference between the Senate of the 1950s refusing session after session to consider civil rights legislation backed by the overwhelming majority - and the Senate of the 2010s declining to try for the fourth time in 10 years to shove through an immigration amnesty that Americans do not want.
Packer cites job creation as an area of inaction. I suppose he’s referring to the much-discussed “second stimulus” that dwindled into a tiny package of small-business tax measures. But surely the failure of the FIRST stimulus to deliver the promised results is the real culprit here, not the otiose procedures of the U.S. Senate?
Packer himself does not express this view, but many of the liberal blogs seem to take the view that once a president wins an election, his duty to persuade the country somehow adjourns for the next four years. That is not true, and it should not be true. If a president can mobilize the country behind an idea, it’s amazing how the filibusters will fade away. Look at how Republicans opted to step out of the way of the Sonia Sotomayor appointment or unemployment insurance extension. If the president cannot mobilize, he will fail. The Senate may be one of the more visible manifestations of that failure. But don’t mistake the manifestation for the cause.