Unicameral Time?

Obviously I’m no fan of Rick Lazio, Hillary Clinton’s 2000 opponent for Senate in New York (post-Giuliani). But the problems he identifies with the New York State Assembly and Senate sound an awful lot like the problems we have in the federal House of Representatives and Senate.

IS it any wonder that nothing gets done in Albany? The New York Assembly and Senate pass different versions of the same bill and can’t agree on what the final legislation should look like. When lawmakers do get together to hash out their differences, they meet behind closed doors. Too often, a good bill appears in one house, and never comes up for debate in the other.

The unicameral system increases transparency by eliminating the need for conference committees — meetings between members of the Assembly and Senate that occur after each house approves different versions of a bill. They’re intended to iron out those differences, but too often, new language creeps in and backroom deals are cut without public knowledge. In addition, lawmakers would be held accountable for blocking good ideas because of partisanship or special interest pressure. The Assembly would no longer be able to kill legislation passed by the Senate or vice versa. Every smart idea proposed by a legislator should be brought to the floor, debated and given a fair up or down vote.

Lately I’ve been joking with friends that someone should introduce a constitutional amendment to replace the bicameral legislature with a unicameral system so we can actually get something decent and progressive passed during the Obama administration. The Senate nowadays seems to be a place where good ideas go to die, be it a death by a thousand cuts in the name of centrism and bipartisanship, or an outright rejection by a few obstinant conservatives.

The three situations I see which best elucidate the problems with a progressive House and a conservative Senate all are deeply important to the progress of the nation. In November 2007, the House passed the RESTORE Act, which stopped warrantless wiretapping and restored the rule of law and the power of FISA; after months of delays against something worse lead by Chris Dodd, the Senate eventually passed a FISA Amendments Act that included retroactive immunity for telecoms that helped the Bush administration spy on Americans and legalized the illegal surveillance program. The Senate’s obstinancy forced something worse onto the House. Now we see a House body that is prepared to pass incredible, progressive healthcare reform legislation and the Employee Free Choice Act intact. But conservative Democrats in the Senate stand in the way of both pieces of legislation. In order for something to get passed, something worse must be made. That’s the way the system works when you have a strong, progressive House and the Senate majority dominated by the whims of conservative Democrats who show no party loyalty nor adherence to campaign promises (either their on or the President’s). Even if good legislation is passed in any of these areas, there will likely be substantive differences between the two bodies that require a conference committee. The conference committee on healthcare will include conservative Democrats and Republicans like Baucus and Grassley, while one in the House could likely include people like Mark Pryor and Mike Enzi. That is, what enters a conference committee will only be reported out as more conservative than what the House produced, at least under the current power dynamic in Washington.

I obviously don’t think that the Senate is going to be done away with any time soon. From a practical partisan standpoint, it would be terribly shortsighted. The fact is, though, that when historians look back on the early years of President Obama’s first term, it will be clear that a handful of conservative Democrats in the Senate were the main, meaningful obstacle to the swift enactment of a robust Democratic agenda. Perhaps on a longer time frame good legislation can come out of the Senate on par with the House, but as of now we’re not seeing it. We’re seeing the opposite and it’s a shame that there isn’t an easy fix (well, you know, other than making conservative Democrats have an iota of party loyalty and vote for cloture on every piece of Democratic legislation).

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