Long but enlightening article. Some highlights:
Like investment bankers on Wall Street, senators these days direct much of their creative energy toward the manipulation of arcane rules and loopholes, scoring short-term successes while magnifying their institution’s broader dysfunction.
Max Baucus, of Montana, the manager of the bill for the Democrats, rose and said, “This is the first time in recent memory that a reconciliation bill has all the amendments on one side only. These are clearly amendments designed to kill the reconciliation and, therefore, kill health-care reform. So I very much hope that all of these amendments are defeated.”
Tall, gaunt Judd Gregg, of New Hampshire, the bill’s Republican manager, took the floor. “The position on the other side of the aisle is: no amendments allowed, even if they are good,” he said. Indignation rouged his cheeks, and his voice rose half an octave. “Obviously, they presume the Republican Party is an inconvenience. The democratic process is an inconvenience. It also appears, considering the opposition to this out in America, that the American people are an inconvenience.”
The Senate is often referred to as “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” Jeff Merkley, a freshman Democrat from Oregon, said, “That is a phrase that I wince each time I hear it, because the amount of real deliberation, in terms of exchange of ideas, is so limited.” Merkley could remember witnessing only one moment of floor debate between a Republican and a Democrat. “The memory I took with me was: ‘Wow, that’s unusual—there’s a conversation occurring in which they’re making point and counterpoint and challenging each other.’ And yet nobody else was in the chamber.”
Nothing dominates the life of a senator more than raising money. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat, said, “Of any free time you have, I would say fifty per cent, maybe even more,” is spent on fund-raising. In addition to financing their own campaigns, senators participate at least once a week in the Power Hour, during which they make obligatory calls on behalf of the Party (in the Democrats’ case, from a three-story town house across Constitution Avenue from the Senate office buildings, since they’re barred from using their own offices to raise money). Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican, insisted that the donations are never sufficient to actually buy a vote, but he added, “It sucks up time that a senator ought to be spending getting to know other senators, working on issues.”
When you spend your days at the Senate, it’s easy to forget about everything else. The House of Representatives seems miles away (it’s just down a corridor and across the rotunda), the White House is another country, and actual foreign countries are unimaginable. The place remains insular, labyrinthine, and opaque—even physically. Senators commute thirty seconds between their offices and the chamber by electric subway cars that run along a tunnel under Constitution Avenue.