Insight. Antics.

Senate: Old And Busted. House: New Hotness.

In Politics on November 10, 2009 at 12:15 pm

Screen Grab of House Floor Vote for Health Care Reform on 11/7/09 - Associated Press

Maybe it passed because Obama came by to give dashing septuagenarian and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) a good luck kiss on the forehead before the big game. Or because Anthony Weiner (D-NY) dropped his hardline Medicare-based public option crusade. Or maybe it passed because the House doesn’t suck.

It’s far from perfect, far from being a vote limited to health care, and far too long: compare its Tolstoy epic-like 1,990 pages to the original Social Security Act’s more novella-like 64. Alas, such is the nature of sausage-making.

By now we all know that on a busy, “nice little Saturday,” the House of Representatives passed a health care reform bill. In June, it also passed climate change legislation. Of course, neither of these bills is law yet, because of the languid pace of that familiar upper house, the Senate. (And because the president would need to subsequently sign them.) Nonetheless, it strikes me as ironic that the House, over four times the size of the Senate and with a few extra members on the fringes of normalcy, often proves to be a more nimble body.

I had always thought of the Senate as the more esteemed and wiser of our nifty bicameral legislature (courtesy of sly dog James Madison), and in many ways that’s true. But its members are, on average, older and more behind the times.

I had always thought of the Senate as the “real” Congress, where the big stuff gets done by household names, your McCains and Dodds and Rockefellers. Lately, it’s a chain of old men playing Red Rover who won’t let any laws come on over.

Through the fall the Senate has shown itself to be underwhelming. Its slothy pace and esoteric procedures are the legislative frustration equivalent of a reality show that drags out the elimination round announcement through three commercial cliffhangers.

My run-in with an entry on Maira Kalman’s artistic And the Pursuit of Happiness blog echoed what is currently maddening about the Legislative Branch:

“But what is everyone doing here? We have a bicameral legislature. That’s the beauty of American democracy. The Senate has 100 senators and the House of Representatives has 435 representatives. Senators serve six-year terms. Representatives serve two-year terms. Right away you can see problems with that setup.

When a law is proposed, the House and the Senate create their own separate bills at the same time. Oh-oh.

Then through a series of insanely complicated machinations that include committees, subcommittees, hearings, caucuses, conferences, quorums, filibusters, lobbying, earmarks, and unbelievable compromises, the bills must be written, voted on and passed.

THEN (before you get too happy) the House and Senate must reconcile their bills (don’t ask) and send one final bill to the president to be signed into law. (My brain is bifurcating just thinking about it.)

The system is supposed to be cumbersome. Not subject to the whim of the moment.”

The House is in danger of giving itself a good name. Perhaps its just trying to contest The West Wing‘s take on it: “We need someone perceived by the American people to be irresponsible, untrustworthy, partisan, ambitious, and thirsty for the limelight. Am I crazy, or is this not a job for the U. S. House of Representatives?” Or, another flatterer: “You know, enjoying the suffering of others. The whole rationale behind the House of Representatives.”

Say what you will about its cast of characters, they get stuff done. No doubt it has some outliers: Michele Bachmann’s cerebral cortex and Dennis Kucinich’s UFO encounter come to mind. It’s not just the size of the House, but its accuracy. The thing is the House is a more representative sample of the country by definition. Each area of a state gets its own population-balanced representative and they can all duke it out. There is a far more dynamic cluster of personalities, religions, ethnicities, and ages. And basically, they all average out, arguably forming a default bellwether for the country. It’s like the Wisdom of Crowds principle put to practice in public life.

Painting of Rosa DeLauro - 10/20/09 - Maira Kalman/The New York TimesSo, for example, while the health care debate raged on in the Senate Finance Committee, the House had already cleared three bills out of committee, setting the stage for its presentation to the full chamber.

House Democrats proceeded by allowing a vote on the measure even if (in a number of cases they knew) they would not vote for it: the vote to vote had 22 additional votes than the vote on the bill itself. In the Senate, getting two or three votes of this nature is going to be harder for Harry Reid than powerlifting Chuck Schumer and John Kerry. (Enjoy that visual.)

Perhaps it’s the reality that the House itself, or at least its individual members, gets less coverage than the Senate that enables it to work more efficiently. This lack of attention derives from the inability of most Americans to divide 435 by two without an iPhone app.

It’s not just the health care passage that makes me feel how I do, but it is convincing. In a trying environment, the House got it done. After an initial lukewarm reception to the president, the AMA endorsed the House legislation. And the AARP, with its 40 million members, just happened to get on board, too.

Painting of Howard Coble - 10/22/09 - Maira Kalman/The New York Times

It was not a cinch. Protestors paid homage to Kill Bill. Or, if I can be tersely vulgar, “Fatties no like.” Surprising compromises on abortion were made by Nancy Pelosi that threaten to result in a liberal fallout. A revealing chart of the home district realities explains some of the “no” votes, as well. On that, Mike Ross (D-AR) what’s the deal? I get that McCain won your district, but you also won reelection by 72%.

The Senate, however, is so strung out on myopic rules it can’t even figure out how to allow a vote to vote to vote on these things. The feeling is looming that it will rip the progress to shreds. And the theatrical media tension-manufacturing is likely to shatter the fragile egos of some senators. Harry Reid’s made a play for a public option; we’ll see how it turns out. Not so auspicious with Joe Lieberman declaring that he will play the role of himself in this act.

Obama’s “stay the course but don’t drive the bus” approach appears to just be working… but the lower part of a house can’t protect the higher part from all damage.

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