Of the pro-Senate pieces I've read in the wake of George Packer's epic takedown of the institution, Jill Lawrence's Politics Daily piece is probably the best. Lawrence takes a different approach than most; instead of relying on old cliché's -- "the Senate was designed to 'cool' legislation" -- she argues that the Senate's critics are ignoring the chamber's impressive achievements. A few high-profile failures notwithstanding, the 111th Congress has been one of the most productive in decades, and by her lights, it's not clear that the Senate requires anything more than a few minor fixes.
It's true that this Congress has passed a few pieces of historic legislation, but when critics rail against obstructionism, they aren't talking about intense legislative battles over high-profile reform bills. More often than not, they're focused on the fact that the Senate has moved to a standstill for nearly everything else. Thanks to the filibuster, as Packer writes in his piece, "three hundred and forty-five bills passed by the House have been prevented from even coming up for debate in the Senate." GOP senators have used filibusters to hold up hundreds of executive-branch nominees and have successfully kept dozens of judicial nominees off the bench, leaving President Obama with the lowest judicial confirmation rate of any president in the last 30 years.
The Senate might not have much trouble passing large legislation -- though that is cold comfort to the millions denied unemployment benefits as Democrats tried to break a Republican filibuster -- but it's almost incapable of maintaining a functional government. Last year, thanks to the glacial movement of nominees through the Senate, the Treasury Department was left pitifully understaffed as the financial crisis deepened and the federal government struggled to respond.
Lawrence misses the mark in her piece because she doesn't quite grasp the extent to which obstructionism rules the day. In today's Senate, even routine items are a near impossibility for the majority.
-- Jamelle Bouie
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