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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The U.S. Senate in Disarray: Founding Principles or Mismanagement?

Herding cats. This expression typically is used to describe two arcane artifacts of human organization: academic faculties and the U.S. Senate. In the latter case, the operational difficulty stems at least in part from the principles on which the legislative chamber is based. More particularly, the senators represent semi-sovereign polities rather than individuals, and governmental autonomy, however slight that may be, translates into senate mechanisms such as the filibuster as well as the related super-majority needed to end such a “debate,” and the power that a single senator has to object to a unanimous-consent request made on the Senate floor. In May 2015, Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, found himself mired in both mechanisms as he sought to end debate on whether to give the Pacific trade deal (TPP) fast-track (i.e., no amendments) treatment, and then to extend the Patriot Act. Whereas The New York Times points to McConnell’s failure to live up to his promise to take the Senate back to its committee process and away from passing legislation by senate leaders making deals such as by horse-trading, I contend that more utility lies in examining how the Senate’s basic principles contribute to the dysfunction.[1]

[1] Jennifer Steinhauer and Jonathan Weisman, “N.S.A. and Other Matters Leave McConnell’s Senate in Disarray,” The New York Times, May 23, 2015.