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Senators' Optimal Experiences

I notice a fair amount of alarm on the left about Senator Lindsay Graham's claim that the 14 Senators who reached a deal on the Nuclear Option will now move on to negotiate a deal on Social Security. I suppose that's possible, but that ship has sailed, or, I should say, has sunk.

But Graham's enthusiasm reminds of why the important thing about Monday's "deal" is not the letter of the agreement, which has been lawyered to death already by people who don't seem to realize that it was written in half an hour and has no one to enforce it anyway. It's the change in the culture of the Senate. For most Senators, huddling in a room or in a hallway with a handful of colleagues from different viewpoints and working something out is the kind of "optimal experience" that the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote about in Flow All the preening self-satisfaction that many noted in the Senators' presentation Monday night appeared to me just glee at being able to do this thing that they love. It's why they are there.

Many of them -- the best of them -- slog through all the campaigns and the fundraising and the committee meetings and the rest, just to get to those moments.

My most vivid memories of working in the Senate are of witnessing such interactions. I remember that as the welfare reform bill of 1996 moved toward passage, seeing Senators Dodd and Hatch just off the floor madly negotiating how to add more money for child care, in a kind of intense duet -- and feeling sort of sad that my boss, in implacable opposition, couldn't really be a part of it. I remember watching the bipartisan group that tried to salvage something from the Clinton health care debacle throw themselves into ten-hour days of learning and bargaining, and I have a feeling, just as a distant observer, that the process was still gratifying and thrilling despite failing to produce a result.

And they have really been denied the opportunity to engage in this basic Senatorial need for a long time. It's a need that Frist doesn't share or recognize, and that the culture of one-party rule has aggressively denied them. To use a very crude and obvious metaphor, they're like people who been involuntary celibate for a long time and now they all have brand-new girlfriends and boyfriends. Of course they want to do it again and again!

Tom Mann of the Brookings Institution had, I thought, the last word on the issue of whether to negotiate on Social Security reform, writing in the New Republic Online several months ago. Mann used the key point of one of my favorite books -- Robert Axelrod's The Evolution of Cooperation -- to show from game theory that one should not cooperate with someone who has previously defected from a cooperative effort, and that Bush had already "defected" from the cooperative effort to rescue Social Security. In addition, the Republicans defected from cooperation on the tax cuts, the Medicare bill, judges, almost everything else, making it completely irrational for Democrats to try to cooperate.

Now, in an atmosphere of cooperation, and with a fresh start, within the closed circle of the 14 members who have defined themselves as the controlling center of the Senate, it might be possible to begin a discussion of Social Security afresh. It's very unlikely, but you can see why they would try.

More interesting is that these 14 are trying to return to the kind of institution where they have those rewarding experiences of collaboration and compromise. And for that reason, I think that whatever the letter of the agreement, there is going to be great resistance to letting Frist or anyone else pull them back to the precipice.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on May 25, 2005 | Permalink


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One of your most impassioned and eloquent posts, Mark. As one who hopes for the re-emergence of the sober middle, it's good to see a group of bipartisan senators coming together to forge some kind of concerted opposition to the extremist polarization that has characterized American politics of late -- in Canada, unfortunately, we have this massive one-party blob (the Liberals) dominating the political landscape, now in power since 1993.

And it's good to see signs that the Senate, or at least a good portion of it, will reassert itself against excessive executive meddling as the embodiment of sobriety -- isn't that what the Founders intended it to be?

But the question is, compromise at what cost? Of course, Bush has shown no signs of being able to compromise at all, and I agree that he has backed out of the cooperative effort that is democratic politics. Since you've been there, and since you've spent so much time thinking about these things, what is the proper balance between the assertion of liberal values as goods in and of themselves (such as the maintenance of social security more or less as it is now, the promotion of health-care reform, etc.) and the need to compromise with the opposition to get anything done?

Posted by: Michael J.W. Stickings | May 25, 2005 3:41:44 PM

Love the 'Flow' reference. It all seems very possible from a motivational standpoint.

The big question is are enough of these 7 Republicans willing to take massive fire from the right wing? Do they have the stomach for it? Does McCain think he can get the nomination by saying F-you to the rel. right? Are all of the others that safe from primary challenges? I'm doubtful. I think all of the above would need to be true for the Flow scenario to play out.

Posted by: Crab Nebula | May 25, 2005 4:05:58 PM

I hope the 14 moderates will move on to other issues, too. But before they do, I hope they'll finish the business they've started. The "deal" is at best a temporary solution to a problem that will continue to fester. The only true solution is to address the root of the problem: the constitution's current ambiguous "advice and consent" language.

This language was largely based on the Massachusetts state constitution of 1780. But while the founders adopted the "advice and consent" concept from that state constitution, they did not create any process for providing advice and consent. The Massachusetts constitution goes much further than the federal constitution, actually establishing a council to advise the governor and also specifying how that council will be formed and how it should operate. The founders failed to dig this deeply into the process, instead leaving the details to the Senate's rules makers.

But recent events now suggest that the Senate's rules can be changed at any time at the whim of the majority. Given this new reality, we need to ask whether it is wise to leave such an important process as the nomination and confirmation process to something so changeable and uncertain.

I for one, think we need to take the next step and finish the business left unfinished in Philadelphia in 1787. The 14 moderates seem to be an excellent group to start work on the constitutional amendment that will finally end this still-festering dispute.

Posted by: Rob Lewis | May 25, 2005 4:15:48 PM

I rarely recommend him, but Broder's column in today's Post, which argues that McCain is the real leader of the Senate, isn't bad:

"Until now McCain has been noted mainly for the battles he has fought -- with sporadic success -- for campaign finance reform and against pork-barrel spending. Those fights have endeared him to special constituencies while antagonizing many of his colleagues. This week he placed himself at the nexus of a debate central to the institutional life of the Senate. This was an ad hoc coalition, forged around one question, but the cadre of supporters he found in both parties is large enough -- if it remains cohesive -- to be a shaping force on many other legislative issues.

"The success of the "Gang of 14" was a rare and welcome triumph over the antagonisms that have been so deeply rooted in the political generation that came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, when the nation was torn by conflicts over civil rights, women's rights, abortion and, most of all, Vietnam."

But Crab Nebula may be right: Does anyone in the Senate, other than McCain, have the stomach to stand up against the right-wing pillars of the conservative movement? Frist may be slowly killing off his chances for 2008, but McCain's a long-shot from the get-go.

Posted by: Michael J.W. Stickings | May 25, 2005 4:16:12 PM

Mark (and Mr. Lewis), I'm not sure if you've seen this, but here's a view from the right on the Senate's "advice and consent" powers.

It's a piece by John Eastman, based on testimony delivered at the House Judiciary Constitution Subcommittee Oversight Hearing on the Federal Judiciary Vacancy Crisis, October 10, 2002. It speaks to Mr. Lewis's comment on the unfinished business of 1787.

Posted by: Michael J.W. Stickings | May 25, 2005 4:25:25 PM

What are the odds that this works out the way the Durenburger/Chafee/Danforth/who-where-the Democrats-in-these-meetings coalition did, where they come up with something that gets pilloried from both sides, but give it the old college try just to get back in the practice of deal making and show a little bipartisan cred?

Posted by: Electoral Math | May 25, 2005 5:04:09 PM

Michael J.W. Stickings

Thanks for the reference. Interesting article, although I think the authors downplay the role of the Senate more than either the text of the constitution or the records of the convention justify. This only supports my broader point, however, that the current language is truly ambiguous and open to multiple interpretations and therefore needs to clarified if we hope to satisfactorily solve the problem.

Posted by: Rob Lewis | May 25, 2005 5:12:58 PM

People used to complain about how the legislative process (the Senate in particular) was moribund and unable to enact legislation. (I remember my political science text from the 70s.) I sort of long for those days of deadlock where, at least, there was some balance of power and people had to compromise. Mark's post exemplifies my feeling that, in a democracy, the process is as important (usually) as the substance. When you have a legislative body where compromise has been eliminated for the most part and replaced with rigid ideology (right or left), democracy suffers. I'd much rather have a Congress in which the members have loyalty to the institution rather than what we have now, where most of the GOP members (not all obviously) would just as soon burn the institution if they can't get their agenda through. There's a lot to be said for DELIBERATIVE democracy even if it's frustrating at times. Conservatives used to believe this.

Posted by: Marc Schneider | May 25, 2005 5:15:37 PM

Frist still doesn't get it.

Arguing ad nauseum his Nuclear logic. Sabre-rattling as if he still has the Option at his disposal. And calling for a cloture vote on Myers.

The latter must reach the 7+7 as an especially galling expression of contempt. Frist speaks as if he thinks they can be bought off, or pried off, or will soon simply forget the commitments they made in the Elysian intoxication of that grown-up senatorial moment.

Frist is the frat-boy on holiday who made a shambles of somebody's beach house, and thinks he can intimidate the owners by threatening to withhold his recommendation for next year's outing.

I won't predict much except that the end, when it comes, will be celebrated in a festival of snark and schadenfreude.

Posted by: RonK, Seattle | May 25, 2005 5:16:53 PM


I'd like to believe you, really I would, but I just can't. As far as I can tell Robert Byrd cares about two things: (1.) pork for West Virginia and (2.) his own personal prerogatives as a Senator and the glory of the institution. The National Interest (the Iraq war aside) doesn't seem to concern him much. I don't trust Chuck Schumer much either. (On the Daily Show, he fully endorsed the view that we lost the November election because of values voters.)

Where does that leave us? With a woman who took campaign contributions from a large company and then failed to recuse herself when that company appeared before her as a party to litigation AS a federal judge.

Posted by: Abby | May 25, 2005 5:37:56 PM

Responding to Abby: I'm not being naive. I'm not arguing that Senators care about "The National Interest." It's about what they consider fun, very much their personal interest.

It's like understanding that people gamble because they find the experience of gambling thrilling, not out of any calculation of interest.

Posted by: Mark Schmitt | May 25, 2005 5:44:22 PM


I didn't mean to suggest that you were being naive, because you know a hell of a lot more than I do. Maybe it's just that all this fun these people are having so often seems to be at the expense of ordinary Americans. I'm having a hard time seeing this as anything other than the boys of the club agreeing to make nice. I just feel that I've been sold out.

Posted by: Abby | May 25, 2005 6:03:35 PM

Re Myers:I have seen no one talk about the actual mechanics of the deal, and how Frist might try to break it. If the seven simply will not vote for cloture, then could Frist simply bring out the cots and force a 24/7 old-fashioned filibuster, with thousands of Dobson's people in Washington and the phones? After a week or two, the deal could collapse.

And does the deal stop Cheney from making his ruling from the chair? If so,how?

Posted by: bob mcmanus | May 25, 2005 6:08:53 PM

The deal would stop Cheney from successfully making his ruling iff the seven Republicans in the gang of 14 vote against his ruling.

Posted by: phil | May 25, 2005 6:20:20 PM

Phil's right. And I think the important thing about that is that the vote would then establish a much firmer precedent that filibusters DO apply to nominations, making it much harder ever to bring out the Nuclear Option again. It's a fire-once weapon.

I saw a moment yesterday, right before the cloture vote on Owen, when Senator Levin made a "point of parliamentary inquiry" to ask how many votes were needed to invoke cloture. The Senator in the chair ignored him, although the point is priveleged, because had he recognized Levin he would have established that it takes 60 votes for cloture. Watch for them to try to lock that in again. (Not that it will matter if they are determined to break all rules.)

Posted by: Mark Schmitt | May 25, 2005 6:28:00 PM

So in your opinion might this constitute a high water mark for the Newt Gingrich style of Movement bomb throwing in the Senate?

Posted by: paul orsillo | May 25, 2005 6:32:47 PM

Nonsense. The Republicans are stronger than ever now, with Democrats led by the likes of Republican Joe Lieberman. What a sort of smug nonsense you are writing. I love reading the blog, Mark. But, I had to comment finally. We lost, lost a lot, however many Senators are making love to each other. The President won. How many Republicans voted for Owen? Duh. We lost. Where was John Kerry? Where is there a Democratic leader with principle and spunk?

Posted by: Alice | May 26, 2005 1:36:48 PM

No, Alice, speaking as someone who desperately wanted a Republican win, the Democrats won.

A Republican win is the ability to confirm a Scalia clone to Stevens' or O'Connor's Supreme Court seat; anything else upholds the status quo for now, and the status quo in the courts favors progressives. The Democrats are playing for time; the Republicans are unlikely to get much stronger any time soon.

Posted by: SamChevre | May 26, 2005 3:42:09 PM

I like your fire, Alice. And I generally agree with you. It's unclear how the battle to replace Stevens (or another "liberal") will play out, but I truly cannot see how the Democrats won this round.

A response to Marc Schneider (a frequent, and highly valued, contributor to my blog, too!): You're right. The right used to believe in "deliberative democracy," not to mention the Burkean conception of representation. George Will's Restoration is very much in that vein. An excellent study of this topic is Joseph Bessette's The Mild Voice of Reason: Deliberative Democracy and American National Government. The argument from the non-populist right (not to mention from many Straussians like Walter Berns, Herbert Storing, and Harvey Mansfield) is that the more deliberative Senate was intended by the Framers to be (along with the judiciary and the indirectly-elected presidency) a counterbalance to democracy's more demagogic tendencies (best seen in the more democratic House). It's quite interesting that many conservatives have broken from this tradition in asserting de facto executive authority over Congress, trying to dismantle the Senate's deliberative capacities, and attacking the independent judiciary. What did Acton say about absolute power?

Posted by: Michael J.W. Stickings | May 26, 2005 3:57:01 PM

By the way, I'm sure many of you have already seen this, but the TNR editorial on "the deal" explains just why it's so hard to learn to love.

Posted by: Michael J.W. Stickings | May 26, 2005 4:54:56 PM

Mark, it is ironic that you mention Hatch and Dodd working together in a collegial manner. Not much noted is the role Orrin Hatch had in bringing the senate to the brink. A look at his turn as Judiciary Committee chairman is most useful here. Look at the changing rules on the blue slip.

One blue slip became two blue slipsk then the blue slips had to be considered by Hatch. Hatch gamed the nomination process, but claimed principle.

As far as the collegiality of senators signing the deal and senators who didn't: a lot of roosters seemed to cluck proudly while many of them were eating crow.

Posted by: The Heretik | May 27, 2005 1:27:15 AM

Is the GOP on record favoring deliberation when they held a lock on power? THAT is the sign that deliberation is valued. Otherwise, it's the same old thing. When you're in the majority, you favor majority rule. When you're in the minority, you favor pluralism (and fret about the tyranny of the majority).

Posted by: RudigerVT | May 27, 2005 12:34:24 PM

Excellent point about the deal being mainly symbolic. More than anything else, this was a revolt by thoughtful Republicans against being a rubber stamp, against the unprecedented breaking of Senate rules on their watch, and their unwillingness to play the fool to Frist's presidential ambitions.

Posted by: Horatio | May 27, 2005 8:31:01 PM

I count on you more than anyone else I read to have a perspective and share some thoughts that CHANGE me. This post was an outstanding example of why I value your contributions.

Posted by: David W. Zuckerman | May 28, 2005 8:46:46 AM