Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The President Attempts to Tame the Senate.

The United States Senate has a long and inglorious history as the graveyard of reform.  Its members are the only elected body in the United States chosen in a deliberately unrepresentative way, with two Senators per state, regardless of population.  The Senate has long served as the clubhouse for a bunch of large egos, most of its members believing that they should be president themselves.  And its rules permit these childish and egotistical windbags a huge amount of latitude to grandstand and delay.  President Obama, having spent a little time in the Senate, knows of its penchant for inaction as well as anyone. 

At times, the President's State of the Union message tonight sounded like a lecture aimed squarely at the U.S. Senate.  Three times he went out of his way to thank the House of Representatives for passing important legislation--a jobs bill, financial reform, and an energy bill--and then implored the Senate to do the same.  (I noticed Nancy Pelosi smile each time.)   Near the end of the speech the President issued an even harsher rebuke to his former colleagues:

To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills. And if the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it's not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions.

Shaming the Senate into action may work, but only if the people get behind the President's program, and place the blame for inaction where it belongs.  Senate Democrats have already surprised a lot of people by getting 60 unanimous votes for health care reform.  After the election in Massachusetts, and the probability of a much smaller Democratic majority after this year's elections, the President knows that he needs to crack the Republican facade of negativism in order to keep the reform agenda on track.  By attempting to reassure independent voters that he is responsive to their concerns, and by placing the responsibility for continued progress on Congress, President Obama's State of the Union message seemed to be designed to scare the foot-dragging, self-important Senators from both parties, into constructive action.

(Senate illustration from Florida Center for Instructional Technology)

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