The Caged Birds of Congress.

According to The Washington Post's Paul Kane, several new and newish senators are starting to look around at the institution they've stepped into, what with its filibuster, holds, and convoluted rules on whether you can hold meetings after lunch. And they've begun to wonder whether the United States Senate circa 2010 is engineered in the way most optimized for this time and this place. They've started to ask questions, for example, about how committee gavels are awarded and, of course, whether the filibuster makes sense. 

Of course, you have Robert Byrd warning against the enslaving tendencies inherent in thinking through whether procedures like "blue slipping" make sense. And all this talk of institutional reform gets Trent Lott's political wheels a-spinnin'. "Be careful of what you do -- you could have it used against you," the resigned senator warns upstarts like Tom Udall, Jim Webb, and Mark Warner.

Let's hope Udall et al. ignore their elders. Riffing off of Rick Hertzberg's post about how the health-care reform bill resembled the ratification of the Constitution, you can start to imagine that what these questioning senators are engaged in is a micro-version of the Constitutional Convention itself. Taking a minute to stop and reconsider the sort of institutional cages we're living in is among the very best of the American tradition.

The stated purpose of that gathering in Philadelphia in 1787 was simply to refine an Articles of Confederation that had left the infant United States unable to raise wartime funds, act coherently on the world stage, and otherwise adrift. If you want to get technical, tweaking the Articles was the outermost limit of the delegates' mandate in Philly. But James Madison and others pushed to the fore the idea of a complete system overhaul that would create a robust federal government instead.

In a very real way, they were making it up as they went along, using what they knew about the world. They were making decisions that draw context from everything from how onerous it would take federal legislators to ride their horses to the Capitol to how long it took a piece of mail to travel across what was then the country. Whether we'd have a bicameral or unicameral federal legislature, a solitary president or a committee of executive magistrates, representation apportioned on state population or wealth were all decisions made by impressive but imperfect men one hot summer more than 220 years ago when they admitted to themselves that they could, in that moment, do better than the current system.

If nothing else, it's a reminder that, as difficult as it might be to believe, American history goes back before Robert Byrd.

--Nancy Scola

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