The Empty Chamber

Very good article in the New Yorker about our dysfunctional Senate:

Daschle sketched a portrait of the contemporary senator who is too busy to think: “Sometimes, you’re dialling for dollars, you get the call, you’ve got to get over to vote, you’ve got fifteen minutes. You don’t have a clue what’s on the floor, your staff is whispering in your ears, you’re running onto the floor, then you check with your leader—you double check—but, just to make triple sure, there’s a little sheet of paper on the clerk’s table: The leader recommends an aye vote, or a no vote. So you’ve got all these checks just to make sure you don’t screw up, but even then you screw up sometimes. But, if you’re ever pressed, ‘Why did you vote that way?’—you just walk out thinking, Oh, my God, I hope nobody asks, because I don’t have a clue.”

Aides, at the elbows of senators as they shuttle between their offices and the Capitol, have proliferated over the past few decades, and they play a crucial role. Lamar Alexander, who has an office of fifty people, pointed out that staff members, who are younger and often more ideological than their bosses, and less dependent on institutional relationships, tend to push senators toward extremes. Often, aides are the main actors behind proposed legislation—writing bills, negotiating the details—while the senator is relegated to repeating talking points on Fox or MSNBC.

This is one of the reasons why term limits would make matters even worse: because unelected aides would have even more power than they already do.

The piece concludes:

As the senators cast their votes, I noticed Robert Kaiser, the author of “So Damn Much Money,” in the press gallery. I later asked him if, with the passage of two big reform bills in three months, we were witnessing a possible renewal of the Senate. “If you can engage public opinion in a way politicians can understand, public opinion can still blow away money and interest groups,” he said. “But over the past few decades the reflex has grown in the Senate that, all things considered, it’s better to avoid than to take on big issues. This is the kind of thing that drives Michael Bennet nutty: here you’ve arrived in the United States Senate and you can’t do fuck-all about the destruction of the planet.”

After the final vote on financial reform, the Republicans flew home, and the Democratic leaders held a press conference, smiling before the microphones outside the Senate chamber. Reid said, “For those who wanted to protect Wall Street, it didn’t work.” He then excused himself: he had to join Biden for a telephone fund-raiser with “some Nevadans.”
Durbin said, “I was stunned that only four Republicans would join us in passing this historic legislation. What does it take to bring the Republican Party into the conversation about the future of America?”

Dodd, glowing with triumph, said, “I wanted to demonstrate that the Senate of the United States could conduct its business much as our founders intended. We did that.”

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.

2 thoughts on “The Empty Chamber

  1. Thank you for pointing out the real danger of term limits in giving even more power to the aides. But in addition to them gaining power with term limits the amount of extra influence that lobbyist would have would be staggering.

  2. Aides and lobbyists gaining more power after term limits is exactly what’s played out in California.

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