Congressional Dysfunction? New York Times Blames C-Span Cameras, Gingrich and Santorum

New York Times reporter Jonathan Weisman claimed to document the "Senate's Long Slide to Gridlock" on Sunday's front page, but his history was tilted toward blaming obstructionist Republicans, though historically Congress has been dominated by Democrats. He even seemed to pine for the days of Democratic congressional barons, laying the fault of dysfunction on C-Span cameras and Republicans Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum back when they were conservative congressmen.

Senator Bob Dole had just assumed the mantle of Senate majority leader, after the Republican landslide of 1994, when he confronted a problem.

Piles of Republican legislation from Newt Gingrich’s self-styled “revolutionary” House were stacking up in a narrowly divided, more deliberate Senate, and Democrats were threatening to gum up the works with amendments that would stall the bills.

Mr. Dole turned to the Senate’s Democratic master of floor procedure, Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, who taught him a parliamentary trick known to Senate insiders as “filling the tree,” Mr. Dole recalled.

The convoluted procedure allows the majority leader to claim all opportunity for offering changes to a bill, effectively preventing any other senator from proposing an amendment intended to slow down legislation or force a politically embarrassing vote.


The increased use of the tactic, which had previously been rare, is part of the procedural warfare that has reached a zenith over the past two years in the Senate. Republicans threaten to filibuster and propose politically charged amendments, Democrats fill the amendment tree, and Republicans filibuster in retaliation.

Weisman portrayed the Democrats and Majority leader Harry Reid, of all people, as potential saviors.

With his majority enhanced and a crop of frustrated young Democrats pushing him hard, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, says he will move on the first day of the 113th Congress to diminish the power of Republicans to obstruct legislation. “We need to change the way we do business in the Senate,” said Senator Tom Udall, Democrat of New Mexico. “Right now, we have gridlock. We have delay. We have obstruction, and we don’t have any accountability.”

The pressure leaves Mr. Reid with a weighty decision: whether to ram through a change in the rules with a simple majority that would significantly diminish Republicans’ power to slow or stop legislation.


Supporters of the idea, who also do not fit a neat ideological profile, argue that the collegial Senate of the past no longer exists and that American democracy is often paralyzed as a result. Today’s Senate, they say, has left crucial positions unfilled, like a confirmed head for the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and is preventing action on major issues like job creation proposals.


Doing almost anything in the Senate today requires 60 votes, because Republicans, who will have 45 seats in next year’s Senate, are blocking even procedural motions to begin debating bills or considering nominations. The act of doing so is commonly called a filibuster, although it no longer requires holding the Senate floor for hours.

Both parties bear some responsibility for the changes, experts say, though not in the same precise ways.

Weisman fingered Democratic baron Robert Byrd of West Virginia for starting the current gridlock, without identifying him as a Democrat (he'd done so previously) or blaming the Democratic Party.

Between 1917 and 1971, no session of Congress had more than 10 such votes in its two years. Still, filibusters were common enough that in 1971, Mr. Byrd, a master of Senate procedure, shifted the rules to allow the Senate to take up other legislation during a filibuster.

That change began an escalation of tactics, in which both delays and attempts at circumventing delays have become more common, with one often leading to more of another. Moves by the minority to obstruct bills elicited responses from the majority worsening the environment.

Weisman did blame Republicans.

But the current Republican minority has taken the practice to a new level. During the past three sessions of Congress, the majority leader has resorted to an average of 129 cloture motions, a near doubling from the level when Democrats were in the minority from 2003 to 2007.

The current Democratic majority has contributed to the parliamentary tit-for-tat, by filling the tree more than in any previous Congress. It has done so over 20 times in each of the last three sessions of Congress. The previous high had been 11, under Republican leadership in 2005 and 2006.

Next, Weisman seemed to pine for the days of Democratic congressional barons, laying the fault of dysfunction on C-Span cameras and Republicans Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum back when they were conservative congressmen:

But there have been major cultural shifts as well, past majority leaders and academics say. Lyndon B. Johnson once said the Senate was an ecosystem of whales and minnows. Get the few whales and the minnows follow.

The advent of C-Span 2, which put cameras in the Senate in the 1970s, helped turn all the minnows into whales in their own right, Ms. Bell said. The influx of House Republicans in the 1990s, steeped in the partisan fights of Mr. Gingrich, furthered the shift. Republicans and Democrats alike point to a moment in the 1990s when Rick Santorum, then a Republican senator from Pennsylvania and a former House warrior, refused to yield the floor to a colleague when asked, a refusal almost unheard of in the Senate.

TimesWatch Congress Jonathan Weisman
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