Is the Senate Broken?

Drawing on a New Yorker article by George Packer, Politico Arena today asks:

Is the Senate broken?
Should the upper chamber operate more like the House, where majority rules?

My response:

Some people believe that the Senate is “broken” when it doesn’t pass new government programs promptly and without extended debate. But we have two houses of Congress for a reason. The Founders expected the House to be subject to momentary passions, and they intended the Senate to be more cautious, prudent, and resistant to “rushing to judgment.” As George Washington supposedly said, “we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.” When the Senate deliberates at length, when it resists the pressure of the White House, the House, and even public opinion, it isn’t “broken”; it is fulfilling its intended function.

Of course, it should be noted that when senators in the past two years have had doubts about the health care overhaul and energy taxes, they weren’t resisting public opinion; they were actually reflecting public opinion, while the House acted as a partisan body in defiance of polls.

Of course there are double standards in talking about filibusters and the like, as I pointed out back in 2005:

Both Democrats and Republicans have flip-flopped on the use of the filibuster because the once solidly Democratic Senate now looks to be firmly Republican.

Republicans who once extolled the virtues of divided power and the Senate’s role in slowing down the rush to judgment now demand an end to delays in approving President Bush’s judicial nominees. President Bush says the Democrats’ “obstructionist tactics are unprecedented, unfair, and unfaithful to the Senate’s constitutional responsibility to vote on judicial nominees.”

Democrats who now wax eloquent about a “rubber stamp of dictatorship” replacing “the rights to dissent, to unlimited debate and to freedom of speech” in the Senate not too long ago sought to eliminate the filibuster altogether.

Now Democrats are back in the majority, and both parties have tended to shift their view of the filibuster yet again. In the long run, though, establishmentarians like the New Yorker’s George Packer think that the purpose of government is to pass new laws, regulations, and programs; and they complain when the Senate or any other institution stands in the way of such putative progress. Those of us who prefer liberty, limited government, and federalism appreciate the constitutional and traditional mechanisms that slow down the rush to legislation.