The Value of Time in the US Senate: A Fellow’s Perspective on Obstruction

PSC 49 V2 CoverThe latest virtual issue of PS features articles written by alumni of the Congressional Fellowship Program (CFP) from 2010 to 2015. The CFP fellows serve yearlong placements in congressional and executive offices, and they chronicle their firsthand experiences in the pages of PS. Enjoy the full virtual issue here.

The Value of Time in the US Senate: A Fellow’s Perspective on Obstruction
Ian Ostrander - Michigan State

Ian Ostrander, Texas Tech University

A rush of last minute legislating in the 113th Congress allowed it to narrowly avoid being the least productive Congress in modern history. But as a close second, it remains an instructive example of what a “Do Nothing” Congress can look like. The lack of countable outcomes in the 113th Congress, however, contrasts sharply with my own memories of often frenzied activity while serving as an APSA Congressional Fellow. The disjunction between the volume of work done within Congress and the lack of results is in large part due to the ubiquity and ultimate costs of partisan obstruction. Working within a senator’s personal office during the 113th Congress provided me with a valuable vantage point to watch as bills failed to become laws.

While the US Senate shares blame for the growth of congressional dysfunction with its sister chamber, its unique procedural landscape provides the most barriers to legislating. Because the Senate lacks a simple majority mechanism to end debate on most matters, the business of the Senate is in constant danger of being derailed by the threat of a filibuster. As such, the Senate tends to operate under unanimous consent agreements (UCAs) that can fail with just a single senator’s objection. The tension between majority and minority parties in the Senate have sparked a spiraling cycle of procedural innovations in obstruction over the last 25 years that collectively have been dubbed the “Senate Syndrome” (Smith 2014).

Several episodes from my fellowship stand out to me as instructive examples of the Senate syndrome. First, I was able to participate in the unique budget pandemonium referred to colloquially as a “vote-a-rama.” Second, I was in a position to watch as the partisan fight over executive nominations devolved to its breaking point and ultimately led a controversial rules reform. From these experiences, I learned that time is one of the most precious commodities for Majority Leaders in the Senate and that congressional staff are an undervalued consideration when examining or theorizing about the operation of the Legislative branch. In this essay, I will briefly discuss these two cases of obstructionism in the Senate as well as describe the handful of lessons that I took away from these experiences…” Read More.