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Super committee's less-than-super outcome is no surprise to Senate expert

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 24, 2011 - In the midst of Washington University professor Steven Smith's month-long lecture series about "The Dysfunctional Senate," the congressional super committee -- made up of House and Senate members -- declared this week that it's incapable of reaching any federal deficit-reduction deal.

Smith, a national expert on the federal government's past and present, said he's "not surprised by the super committee's failure," but emphasizes that he believes "the failure was not so much the failure of the 12 members of the committee as it is of their leaders and parent parties."

"Last summer, those party leaders failed to find a combination of policies that can satisfy most House Republicans and Senate Democrats and that has not changed," Smith said in an e-mail interview.

Smith makes the point that the committee's meltdown has little to do with the Senate's longstanding procedural problems that he blames for that chamber's increasingly noticable gridlock.

But the super committee's creation in the first place was tied to the Senate's malaise. As Smith notes, "The dysfunctional Senate is one reason that the joint committee's bill was to be put on a fast track -- that is, no amendments, a debate limit and no filibusters. Authors of the joint committee process knew that a Senate minority would be a serious obstacle to getting a bill enacted."

That is why the committee's demise elevates concerns that the Senate, regardless of which party is in control, could well kill off any post-super committee efforts in either chamber to resurrect various deficit-reduction proposals, whether they be spending cuts or revenue increases.

As Smith explained, "The failure of the joint committee process is tangential to the Senate's procedural problems. Even getting a simple majority of the Senate to agree with a simple majority of the House and the president is a problem in deficit reduction."

Which brings us to his three-part lecture series, titled "The Dysfunctional Senate."  The first two lectures were held Nov. 1 and Nov. 15, with the final one set for next Tuesday night. All are being held at 7:30 p.m. in Washington University's law school (or Anheuser-Busch Hall.)

The final installment focuses on Smith's prescription for the Senate's future, which he says will need some serious procedural changes if the chamber is to regain its power and relevancy.

During the first two lectures, Smith explained the present by delving deeply in the Senate's past, where he says decisions made more than 200 years ago have contributed to what he calls "a parliamentary arms race between the two parties."

"The Senate is now so bound by formal rules, the freedom of action has substantially disappeared," Smith said during his first lecture. "The majority can be obstructed by the minority quite easily."

He says that the media, past and present, also have contributed to the gridlock by not adequately explaining what's really going on.

In any case, Smith's chief point is that the U.S. Senate's operational problems are hurting its effectiveness -- and the country. He maintains that change is no longer an option.

Blame It on Baseball

How did the Senate get that way?

To hear Smith tell it, for the most part, Roberts Rules of Order had little to do with it. Baseball, however, did.

The U.S. Senate, like the House, was set up in the late 1780s by the Constitutional Convention, which was presided over by George Washington, who went on to become the first president.

From the get-go the Senate was based on the premise of equal representation for each state, large and small. Each state gets two senators. Legislatures chose the senators until the 17th amendment was passed in 1913, which mandated that senators be elected directly by the public.

The U.S. Constitution allows for each chamber, the House and Senate, to set up its own rules for proceeding, And that's when the U.S. Senate began to go down its unique path.

Some blame goes to the nation's third vice president -- Aaron Burr -- who, while presiding over the Senate (even after shooting former Treasury Secretary and Founding Father wunderkind Alexander Hamilton in 1804) observed in his celebrated "farewell address" in 1805 that the Senate should continue to be "a sanctuary, a citadel of law, of order, and of liberty."

But Burr also noted that a particular procedural maneuver used by the majority to end filibusters swiftly -- known as "move the previous question" -- had only been used six times by the Senate since its creation in 1789. He recommended that the procedure be dropped for good from the Senate rules.

(Burr's observation reflected the fact that, during those early years in the Senate, there weren't many filibusters, and they didn't last long.)

By 1806, "move the previous question" no longer existed in the Senate rules. As a result, filibusters became more frequent and virtually unstoppable.

(The Missouri Senate, by contrast, does have -- and employs -- the "move the previous question'' procedure, commonly known as PQ. The state Senate's problem is that leaders hesitate to use the procedure to curb filibusters launched by those within their own party, out of fear of creating internal tensions.)

The effect of the U.S. Senate's protection of filibusters was significant for decades, Smith said, because backers of slavery extensively used filibusters -- or the threat of them -- to block any bills aimed at abolition or minority voting rights.

The key early Senate figures include Sen. Arthur Pue Gorman a Democrat from Maryland who served in the Senate off and on for 26 years, from 1880-1906, much if it as the Democratic leader -- the first real minority leader, Smith says.

Gorman also was renowned for his sports prowess, serving as an outfielder for the Washington Nationals baseball team prior to his Senate years and becoming a major figure in the development of professional baseball.

Gorman's sports skills gave him clout on the Senate floor, and he ruled.

Various major Senate procedures, such as recognizing the Senate majority leader first, whenever that person sought to be speak, came about over the decades in what Smith calls "a haphazard, accidental basis."

During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson became furious when an 11-senator filibuster blocked the arming of Merchant Marine vessels. That battle ultimately led to the Senate rule allowing a two-thirds vote to end filibusters.

Since 1975, the filibuster-proof majority has been lowered to 60 votes.

But that 60-vote threshhold -- and the threat of a filibuster -- is often used by the Senate minority to block a bill from even coming up. And presidential appointments, including those for judgeships, can be blocked by a single senator using a "hold." The identity of a senator putting a hold on a nomination can be kept secret even from colleagues.

Smith says there have been various proposals over the years to curb the use of filibusters, such as perhaps reducing the number of votes needed to break a filibuster after the first day.

As for blocked presidential appointments, Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., have co-sponsored a bill that would drop 400 lesser presidential posts from requiring Senate nominees anonymous. So far, the bill has gone nowhere -- presumably because of a filibuster threat.

Smith says that the Senate's convoluted and unique proceedings have not only blocked votes but also curbed the freedoms of individual senators, as well as confused the public.

Watching from the outside, Smith said the public often blames the Senate majority for any lack of action, when actually it's the minority.

Until the Senate confronts its crippling rules, he says, nothing will change.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.