The Senate vs. the future

President Obama delivers the State of the Union address.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 31, 2011; 7:30 PM

If historians ever have to pinpoint the day that America lost the future, they're likely to look to Thursday. That was when Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell took to the floor of the Senate to announce an agreement on fixing the increasingly sclerotic, polarized, dysfunctional body they lead. Their agreement? Neither of them would fix it. Both promised not to change the rules of using a majority vote for at least four years. Nor did they set up an alternative process for taking a good, long look at why the Senate has begun to make a Beverly Hills divorce look courteous and functional. They just . . . moved on.

This came a few days after President Obama's State of the Union address, in which he exhorted Americans to make the tough decisions necessary to "win the future." That would take "sacrifice and struggle," he said. It would mean overhauling, among other things, the public sector. "We can't win the future with a government of the past," he warned.

But when it came to offering specifics, the president whiffed. He settled for a laugh line about regulating salmon rather than a cold-eyed appraisal of the gridlock and misaligned incentives of the body that - along with the House - serves as the board of directors for the United States of America. How well they work matters much more than who regulates what we put on our bagels. As an explanation of what stands between America and "winning the future," Obama's speech wasn't good enough. He dodged the real problem.

Two weeks before Obama's address, however, Sen. John Kerry delivered the speech that Obama should have given. Like Obama, Kerry emphasized that "developed and developing countries are making far-reaching choices to reshape their economies and move forward in a new and very different global era." Like Obama, Kerry intoned that "we as a people face another Sputnik moment today." Like Obama, Kerry argued that "unprecedented levels of investment in science and technology, engineering and R&D" had provided the foundation for American leadership in the 20th century, and would be required to build on it in the 21st.

But Kerry's explanation of the way our political system is impeding our efforts to adapt to a fast-changing future and meet the obstacles in our path was much more ambitious, and much more precise. "On issue after issue," he said, "enduring consensus has been frayed or shredded by lust for power cloaked in partisan games." He noted that the individual mandate began as a Republican idea, that cap-and-trade was a favored policy of the first Bush administration, that treaties that were much more far-reaching than START once passed with 90 or 95 votes.

The grim reality, he said, is that "in the 21st century where choices and consequences come at us so much faster than ever before, the price of Senate inaction isn't just that we will stand still; it isn't just that America will fall behind; it's that we will stay behind as we cede the best possibilities of this young century to others who are more disciplined."

The incentives, structure and customs of the contemporary Senate are not well-suited to good governance. It's arguable, in fact, that they do not even permit good governance. Kerry illustrated the problem by quoting from a PowerPoint presentation that Senate Republicans used to open the session. "The purpose of the majority is to pass their agenda," the slide read. "The purpose of the minority is to become the majority."

Isn't the purpose supposed to be to better the country?

Jeff Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University, makes the point this way: "Remember when Mitch McConnell said 'the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president'? You would never say inside a company that our intention is to make the CEO fail. No one would tolerate that on a board. You'd be booted off. The objective is to make the CEO and the company successful."

The problem facing our system is that the minority has both the electoral incentive to see the majority fail and, using the Senate's rules, the power to make it fail. Far from encouraging bipartisanship, this encourages a particularly virulent strain of partisanship: In a world where the majority can govern with or without you, you have a strong incentive to participate constructively in the process. In a world where the majority can't govern without you, and won't be reelected if they can't govern, you have a strong incentive to walk away from the process. Success for the majority means electoral failure for you. That means your interests and the country's interests are not aligned.

That's not how successful companies are run, as Pfeffer notes. And it's not how other countries are run. Indeed, for a long time, it's not even how we were run. For much of the 20th century, our political system showed very little polarization. The filibuster was rarely deployed, party-line voting was uncommon and consensus was much closer at hand.

But those days are over. In the past two years, we've seen more filibusters than in the '40s, '50s and '60s combined. Party-line votes are a constant. Congressional leaders freely admit, as House Speaker John Boehner did, that this is "not a time for compromise." We have a legislative system built for a political system from another time. If we're to win the future, we're going to need one adapted to the realities of our present. Constructing that system will require thoughtful engagement from people of both parties. But saying that what we've got now is good enough is not, well, good enough.

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