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Is the Senate a Field of Broken Progressive Dreams?

Jonathan Chait has penned a very interesting and important article in the New Republic today about the institutional barriers to Democratic unity, and to achievement of any coherent progressive agenda, posed by the Congress, and especially the U.S. Senate. He covers a lot of ground in this piece, from the floor rules that make 60 votes necessary to pass important legislation, to the "small-state" bias of the Senate's constitutional structure, which exaggerates conservative power, to the chaotic culture of 100-sun-kings that makes senators resist discipline, to the committee system that gives certain sun kings an outsized ability to shape legislation.

If anything, I think Chait understates the importance of this last factor. Seniority-based committee and subcommittee chairmanships are, after all, the primary magnet for special-interest campaign contributions, and also a powerful reinforcer for legislative parochialism, which enables the committee baron to survive adverse political trends by bringing home and defending the bacon in a way that a replacement senator couldn't hope to achieve.

Chait's more controversial theme is that Democrats have a much harder time negotiating senatorial landmines than Republicans. This he attributes to a combination of historical patterns, the influence of business interests, and a tradition of ideological hedge-betting against Democratic presidents.

On history:

Since Democrats controlled the Congress almost continuously for more than 60 years beginning in 1933, the culture of Congress left a deeper imprint on their party. Republicans, shut out from the perks of majority status, finally decided under the opposition leadership of Newt Gingrich in the 1990s that their only path to power lay in partisan discipline.

Democrats, on the other hand, came of age under the old Democratic chieftains, and they have mostly aped that style. They do not fall in line, even under a Democratic president who mostly shares their goals.

On business interests:

[T]he affluent carry disproportionate political weight with elites in both parties. So, while people who earn more than $250,000 per year make up just a tiny slice of the electorate, they make up a huge chunk of any congressman's friends, acquaintances, and fund-raisers.

What's more, whatever their disposition toward business in general, Democrats feel it is not just a right but a duty to slavishly attend to the interests of their home-state businesses. That is why Kent Conrad upholds even the most absurd demands of agribusiness, or why even a good-government progressive like Michigan's Carl Levin parrots the auto industry's line on regulating carbon dioxide.

Taken as a whole, then, the influence of business and the rich unites Republicans and splits Democrats.

And on bet-hedging:

Democrats have locked themselves into a self-fulfilling prophecy. When their party controls all of Washington, things tend to go south quickly. The president's popularity plunges, and soon his copartisans in Congress find themselves scrambling to keep from losing their own seats in the political undertow. It happened to Carter in 1978 and 1980, and again to Clinton in 1994.

And, so, they hedge their bets by carving out an independent identity. It doesn't matter that Obama is popular now, or that a majority of Americans (according to a recent Pew poll) reject the criticism that he's "trying to do too much." If Obama defies history and retains his popularity, they'll retain their seats anyway. They have to worry about the scenario where Obama turns into an albatross.

It's all a pretty persuasive case, and one that does not, as many accounts do, rely on excessive attributions of treasonous motives to a particular faction of the party. Though party "centrists" are the current top suspects for a revolt against the Obama agenda in the Senate (as opposed to the op-ed pages, where progressives are issuing strong objectives to the Obama-Geithner financial plan), more traditional liberals, sometimes on institutional or parochial-interest grounds, were the main rebels against the last two Democratic presidents.

But Ezra Klein, who agrees strongly with Chait on the importance of institutional factors, challenges Chait's claim that Republicans managed Congress in a superior fashion during the Bush years.

It's hard, of course, to match Obama's few months against Bush's eight years. But even so, I'm not sure Bush's eight years lend themselves to such a clean history.

The original tax cuts, for instance, traveled through a Democratic Senate and found their key partisans on the opposite side of the aisle. Max Baucus stood behind President George W. Bush at the signing ceremony. The second round, which came after the 2002 midterms, ran through a Republican-chamber, but here told a story more familiar to stimulus-watchers: A group of moderate Senate Republicans, led by the then-heterodox John McCain, partnered with centrist Democrats and halved the size of Bush's tax cuts.

Other Bush accomplishments followed similar paths. No Child Left Behind was a compromise bill built with the cooperation of Ted Kennedy and George Miller. George Voinovich and Bob Bennett opposed the legislation. Medicare Part D began as a bipartisan effort (again with Kennedy) and only became a war after Bill Thomas and the House Republicans warped it in conference committee -- which they did because they could barely pass it through the partisans in the lower chamber. In the Senate, Orrin Hatch, Trent Lott, John Sununu, Judd Gregg, and a handful of other Republicans voted against the final bill.

In all these cases, Republicans evinced the exact same frustrations with their moderates, and the compromises they forced, that you hear from today's Democrats.

The distinction between institutional barriers to governance and those that flow from ideology or partisan discipline is not an academic matter, Klein notes:

You can understand the problems of the Senate in two ways. The first is that it's a problem of party discipline. The second is that it's a problem of rules. If you think it's the first, the answer is to put resources and effort into mounting a primary challenge against Ben Nelson. If you think it's the second, then the answer may be to put time and energy into repealing the Byrd Rule, or lowering the filibuster limit, or making it easier to replace chairman, or otherwise transforming the structural incentives that makes legislative success such a delicate and unlikely outcome and thus allows individual Senators to exert so much control over it. Moreover, if you think it's the second, you can actually make something of a bipartisan argument, rather than a purely partisan one. The Senate, as currently composed, doesn't work for Republicans any better than it works for Democrats. And it really doesn't work for the country. And that's probably an easier argument than trying to convince Nebraskans that Ben Nelson's incredible power isn't good for them.

We can only hope that we won't see fresh evidence of the Senate brokenness in the debate over the Obama budget. If we do, understanding what went wrong, and what to do about it, will be a more urgent priority than ever.