There Is No Plan

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The Senate. Some Want Out and Some Even Want In.

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been there. done that.

It’s been a busy few weeks in the Senate. Apart from the few Republicans that got beat in the November election, other Senators are leaving of their own accord. Headlined by Barack Obama himself, his Vice President, Joe Biden, his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton are all shipping out. Others like Chuck Hagel had had enough. Mel Martinez isn’t standing for re-election in 2010, and Ted Stevens, would like to have stayed but just failed to be the first convicted felon to get re-elected to the Senate. You got to love Alaska’s taste in uncles. As for John McCain, one could easily get the impression that he’s glad to be back, so he can go gently into the night.

Then there are those who are desperate to get in. Everyone from Caroline Kennedy to Jesse Jackson Junior to Al Franken, still counting votes in Hennepin County, Minnesota. The idea that Jesse Jackson Jr. appears at least to some extent to have been prepared to risk the extreme toxicity of Rod Blagojevich to get his shot strikes me as risky in the extreme. But in all these cases, the candidates seem to me to have been captivated by the majesty and history of the place, but forget that the Senate is basically one big, and frankly boring, compromise. It revels in its sham bipartisanship, and unlikely, awkward alliances. It’s no surprise the place is so ineffective in so many ways. A place where Barack Obama can co-sponsor legislation with the most right wing Senators in the Republican Caucus, Tom Coburn, is a place where cooperation trumps the quality of policy making.

All in all, the US Senate is a vainglorious, disappointing place, where the output rarely matches the bluster. Even the best senate resumes seem somewhat thin and massage. It’s a place of rules and procedure, a place where the filibuster and pork rule the day, a place that still places a premium on seniority, as if that is any marker at all of merit. If a company gave the top jobs to the longest serving employees, that company would seen be extinct. The Senate, sadly, cannot go out of business because it’s constitutionally mandated to continue it’s sorry mediocrity for all time and maybe longer. Sure it passes budgets and has hearings, but the former are procedural and the latter are theater. In between, there’s just hot air.

The experience of US Senators tends to fall into a few categories. There are those who revel in the club atmosphere but do little of note, like Larry Craig (well he did something of note but it was in an airport restroom). There are those who become ‘lions’ of the Senate who do a great deal that doesn’t tend to amount to very much except huge federal funds for, say, Alaska (to pick one not so arbitrary example). They also have a minimum age of 75. And finally, there are those like Obama who would have liked to do a great deal but realize that the Senate is a place where getting things done is seen as a middling priority at best.

Obama realized pretty quick that the Senate wasn’t a big enough place for his ambition, and within three years of his arrival he was running for President. For all their fame and profile, both Obama and Hillary Clinton were junior senators who would have had to wait a decade for real senate power. Both of them are too smart for that. Neither of them have the patience to wait it out.

There’s a faint whiff in the air that the Senate is starting to be seen as a jumping off point to somewhere else. Perhaps the new Administration will change that, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. A combination of smarting Republicans, Blue Dog Democrats and the filibuster might be enough to keep the Senate doing what it does best. Not very much.

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