I finally set aside the time required to read George Packer’s long New Yorker piece on the broken state of the U.S. Senate. If you have a half an hour of free time, I suggest you do the same. I know most of the history that Packer recounts, but he has a lot of interesting anecdotes and on-the-record quotes from senators on their feelings about the institution. It’s an artful piece of writing. I got the sensation of actually being a U.S. Senator and sharing in the frustrations but also learning what kind of compromises are required to get things done. It gave me a little more empathy for what Baucus and Dodd had to go through to pass the Wall Street and health care reforms.

It’s sad what has happened to the Senate. Its creation was born of need (there was no other way to ratify the Constitution and create a union). But it might, perhaps, have contained some wisdom. I know America has enjoyed many benefits out of the stability the Senate provides. Major changes do not happen often, and there is rarely even the threat of major change because the Senate is both undemocratic and operates under rules that require a three-fifths majority to change anything. Without this stability, tax rates might fluctuate all over the place, and regulations would come and go every time control flipped in Congress. I don’t think America would have ever been so successful financially without this stability. But there are trade-offs in everything. Sometimes, action is urgently needed. Sometimes, a narrow majority has it right. We let people become officeholders based on narrow majorities, so the idea is kind of ingrained that a majority is legitimizing. No one learns in school that it takes a three-fifths majority to make a bill or appointee legitimate.

Yet, Packer makes clear that there isn’t sufficient support to amend the filibuster rules.

Newcomers like [Tom] Udall seem to think that the Senate has grown so absurd and extreme that some kind of reform is inevitable. Perhaps they need more time to plumb the depths of the institution’s intransigence. According to Sarah Binder, a change in rules is extremely unlikely; Republicans would be implacably opposed to, say, weakening the filibuster, and so would some Democrats, especially long-serving ones. “I would oppose that,” Chris Dodd said, adding of the freshmen, “These are people who have never been in the minority.” For older Democrats, who have put in their years, grown adept at working the rules, and now chair powerful committees, the reform impulse could be a threat. (Among senior senators, the sole enthusiast for rules reform is Tom Harkin.) One senator spoke of the Senate as being divided not between whales and minnows but, rather, between bulls and calves. The older Democrats are too accustomed to the Senate’s ways to share the frustrations of the newcomers; the handful of older moderate Republicans are too weak to challenge the newer radicals who now dominate the caucus.

If Ms. Binder is right, there will be no filibuster reform in the next Congress and I suspect that the government will simply shut down because the Senate will be incapable of passing its appropriations bills. I don’t say that as hyperbole. It happened before in 1995, and the current crop of Republicans seems to fear lending any support to anything the president wants done lest it confer some kid of legitimacy on him. I know there is a Party of No strategy that is partly justified by a desire to stay relevant and not get steamrolled. But I don’t think McConnell really has control of this beast. He controls it now while it is doing his bidding. But can he turn it off when he wants to? His base isn’t engaged in strategy, and they won’t understand or accept it if Republicans suddenly start doing things like engaging in the appropriations process.

Here’s my advice to the Democrats in the Senate. After the November elections, look around, and if you have less than 60 members in your caucus, make a list of the worthwhile legislation that you think you’ll be able to pass during the next two years if you don’t amend the filibuster rules. If you want to spend the next two years doing only what is on that list, then don’t change the filibuster. But if you are satisfied with that list, why don’t you just retire instead? After all, that page is going to be blank.

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