On May 26, the New York Times reported that the Senate had passed a series of important pieces of legislation “with a bipartisan flurry” : legislation to overhaul the postal system, pay for a multi-year transportation program, renew the Violence against Women Act, streamline the FDA drug approval process, extend the life of the Export-Import Bank, and ease financing for small business startups. Richard Lugar, the six term Senate veteran who recently lost in a Republican primary, commented that the Senate was “starting to operate as designed. Bills have been passed after committee deliberations, cross-party negotiations over amendments and procedures and ‘a lot of time just visiting with eachother.’ ” Last week, the Senate passed an impressive Farm Bill, which actually reduced agricultural subsidies by $23 billion, by a comfortable bipartisan majority, in an election year!
It was a sharp change from the Senate described by Olympia Snowe in March when she announced her decision to retire: ” The Senate of today regularly routinely jettisons regular order, as evidenced by the body’s failure to pass a budget for more than 1,000 days; serially legislates by political brinksmanship…and habitually eschews full debate and an open amendment process in favor of competing, up-or-down, take-it-or-leave-it proposals. ” Senator Snowe found no evidence that senators were seeking common ground necessary to advance the national interest, and doubted that the situation was going to get better any time soon.
So what explains the change, and can it last?
As Ruth Marcus recently noted in her Washington Post column, there are plenty of capable legislators in the Senate. But the institution has been run in a way that denied them the chance to be effective. Time and again, (e.g. health care; financial regulation), the senators were expected to stop working constructively together, because partisan lines were being drawn. For the Republicans, the national interest took distant second place to opposing President Obama. In March, in an article that appeared in the New York Times on-line, I wrote that that most of the senators shared the public’s frustration and anger about the Senate’s dysfunction, but seemed to feel trapped in the hyper-partisan Senate that has evolved over the past two decades. Rejecting the notion that the senators were somehow powerless victims, I urged them to take back the Senate, transcending partisanship to find principled compromises that served the national interest. The article noted my strong belief that “the Senate includes many men and women who want their legacy to be a stronger country, not a degraded Senate that fails the American people.”
During the lameduck session of 2010 when it ratified the START treaty and passed “don’t ask, don’t tell” legislation, the Senate proved it was still capable of legislative statesmanship. In recent weeks, it has proven it again. Whatever the outcome of the elections in November, America will need a Senate that functions at its best, not at its worst. The senators should reject the tactics of the obstructionist members, and tell their leaders that they did not come to Washington to participate in an endless partisan knife fight. The senators have the power to restore the Senate to its special place in our political system, and the public should expect no less of them.