Our Coming Broken Congress

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Oct. 22 2010 4:45 PM

Our Coming Broken Congress

First Read previews the coming Republican HouseandmaybeSenate and thinks big :

Every time a party has had control of the three bodies, it ended in a wave election for the other side (1980, 1994, and 2006). So is what we're witnessing just American politics returning to its natural state? Indeed, our NBC/WSJ poll in late August found that 62% of respondents said it was better if different parties control the White House and Congress, while only 29% preferred one party in command of both.

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First, quickly: the 1980 and 2010 waves had/will have a lot to do with economic conditions. But as to the main point, it's worth remembering that the 2006 and 2010 waves came/are coming after the Senate fumbled big priorities, and fumbled them in large part because the Senate is increasingly all about fumbling big priorities. In 2005, George W. Bush wasted a ton of time on Social Security reform when a 45-member Democratic Senate caucus was locked in against it. In 2009 and 2010, the Senate passed compromised and unpopular stimulus and health care bills, and failed to pass major environmental, immigration, and labor legislation, because a Democratic caucus of 58 to 59 members (with a four-month interregnum of 60 members) struggled to break filibusters.

I don't think most voters have any idea how the Senate works, or why it fails. Base voters have a better idea, but are unforgiving -- no gay activist wants to hear that Don't Ask Don't Tell is surviving because it only got 57 votes in support. And those unforgiving base voters abandon the ship, typically, helping create Senates with fewer members of their parties. And those Senates go on to disappoint them some more.

We pay a lot of attention to the Senate, but we can't pay enough: the fact that a party that loses an election gets to thwart almost every priority of the party that won is a huge source of frustration and confusion. If Republicans do take the Senate, Tea Partiers will discover that the upper body has sticky rules, nowhere to be found in the Constitution, that prevent their big reforms from even being proposed.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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