2. The Senate is dead

Broken Senate

In the 111th Congress, the Nancy Pelosi-led House of Representatives was extraordinarily productive, passing strong progressive legislation on everything from college loans to consumer credit protections to tobacco (and, oh yeah, climate change). Some major legislation, like health care and financial reform, went to the Senate to be weakened and made foul with deal-making. Other bills just went nowhere — withered and died from lack of consideration, with no debate and no vote. That sorry fate befell not only climate legislation but an incredible 419 other bills.

National Journal filibuster chartNational JournalIt’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the U.S. Senate is no longer a viable governing institution. The now-routine abuse of the filibuster — an historical accident, not a deliberate choice or a constitutional right — means that a lockstep minority, in many cases even a sufficiently truculent individual, can grind the entire institution to a halt. Just last week, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) admitted that Republicans’ goal is to “run out the clock” … and then complained about being forced to work through the holidays.

That mix of laziness, entitlement, and cluelessness is typical of an institution that has fallen profoundly out of touch with the average American. The median age in America is 37; in the Senate it’s 63 — today’s Senate is the oldest ever. Roughly 1 percent of Americans are millionaires; the median wealth of a U.S. senator is nearly $2.38 million. Some 13 percent of Americans are black; there are no black senators. The institution has been utterly captured by the narrow perspectives and pecuniary interests of an entitled class.

Add functional oligarchy to procedural dysfunction and an already unrepresentative body becomes embarrassingly unequal to the country’s challenges. Earlier this year, David Obey (D-Wis.), one of the titans of the House, announced that he was leaving public life in disgust, saying “all I know is that there has to be more to life than explaining the ridiculous, accountability-destroying rules of the United States Senate to confused and angry and frustrated constituents.” Tell me about it.

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Addendum: Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) is the Senate’s leading champion for reform. He’s got a simple plan to fix the rules, which you can read about on his site. Here he is presenting it: