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Standstill in the Senate – Thoughts on New Yorker article

August 11, 2010

“Just how broken is the Senate?” George Packer asked in a recent New Yorker article I posted on my tumblr blog the other day. I highly recommend reading it. Here are some thoughts.

  • Sen. Claire McCaskill is one of my favorite Senators. I covered her hearing on Afghan police force training (the one that had to be rescheduled as described at the beginning of the article). She seemed genuinely outraged at what she called an “unacceptable” state of police training in Afghanistan. She’s on Twitter, too.
  • The whirlwind conversation on blogs, Twitter and other Hill media such as Political or Roll Call, Packer says, is “News about, by, and for a tiny kingdom of political obsessives [that] dominates the attention of senators and staff, while stories that might affect their constituents go unreported”.
    This parallels discussions I’ve had recently with my journalist friends. Do we spend too much time catering to the hyper-engaged readers, while neglecting those who don’t keep up with news in a million different ways? After all, engaged readers are a news organizations’ cash cows: the top 25 percent of newspaper Web visitors account for 86 percent of page views, reports the Columbia Journalism Review. How can we serve both groups of readers (and constituents)?
  • The heightened focus on tension has pushed polarization, writes Packer. Dodd, a Senator since 1981, told him he hasn’t had a reporter from Connecticut covering him in years. Dodd says “D.C. publications only see me through the prism of conflict.” “Lamar Alexander described the effect as ‘this instant radicalizing of positions to the left and the right.'” (online pg. 2)
  • The article really crystallizes the importance of relationships in the Senate. With heightened partisanship, hectic schedules and little time or inclination to get to know one another, Sens. Kyl and Dodd contend that trust has disappeared.
  • “The Senate, by its nature, is a place where consensus reigns and personal relationships are paramount,” Lamar Alexander said. “And that’s not changed.” Which is exactly the problem: it’s a self-governing body that depends on the reasonableness of its members to function. (online pg 7)

  • Should Senators be familiar with the ‘spirit of the Senate’, its intention as a body, to avoid falling into the built-in possibilities of obstructionism? Is that why the late Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who always carried a copy of the constitution with him, had such an important role in keeping alive the legacy of the institution? (Byrd is supposedly the only person to have read the 1,600-page Senate rulebook in its entirety)
  • Maneuvers intended to foster debate and decisions (such as holds, meant to allow a Senator to make it to the Capitol on horseback in time for a vote) are increasingly used to obstruct business. It has become the norm for a handful of senators “to hold everything up,” writes Packer.

One feature of the diminished U.S. senator is the ease with which he moves from legislating to lobbying. (online pg 7)


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