Chris Dodd's farewell address to the Senate offers a perfect encapsulation of the mindset of the Senate institutionalist. Dodd, the son of a Senator, was literally reared in the folkways of the institution. No amount of evidence can persuade him that the rules of the place don't work. The Senate cannot fail, it can only be failed. Here is is urging his colleagues not to reform the filibuster:
I appreciate the frustration many have with the slow pace of the legislative progress. And I certainly share some of my colleagues’ anger with the repetitive use and abuse of the filibuster. Thus, I can understand the temptation to change the rules that make the Senate so unique—and, simultaneously, so frustrating.
But whether such a temptation is motivated by a noble desire to speed up the legislative process, or by pure political expedience, I believe such changes would be unwise.
We one hundred Senators are but temporary stewards of a unique American institution, founded upon universal principles. The Senate was designed to be different, not simply for the sake of variety, but because the framers believed the Senate could and should be the venue in which statesmen would lift America up to meet its unique challenges.
As a Senator from the State of Connecticut—and the longest serving one in its history—I take special pride in the role two Connecticut Yankees played in the establishment of this body.
It was Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth, delegates from Connecticut to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 who proposed the idea of a bicameral national legislature.
There are a couple common delusions here. The first is that a routine supermajority requirement is part of the design of the Senate. This is not true. It evolved accidentally, and indeed, the Constitution specifies a few specific kinds of votes that should require a supermajority, suggesting that the rest should not.
The second is that it's okay to let the minority have a powerful weapon of obstruction, but the minority simply shouldn't use it. Dodd offers no explanation of why he thinks the minority would sometimes willingly allow itself to lose votes it could win. His implicit answer is that it happened in the old days -- when Dodd was a child and political parties lacked ideological coherence -- so it can happen again.
Dodd offers a prediction:
Our economy is struggling, and many of our people are experiencing real hardship – unemployment, home foreclosures, endangered pensions.
Meanwhile, our nation faces real challenges: a mounting national debt, energy, immigration, nuclear proliferation, ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and so much more. All these challenges make the internal political and procedural conflicts we face as Senators seem small and petty.
History calls us to lift our eyes above the fleeting controversies of the moment, and to refocus our attention on our common challenge and common purpose. ...
I am not naïve. I am aware of the conventional wisdom that predicts gridlock in the Congress.
But I know both the Democratic and Republican Leaders. I know the sitting members of the Senate. And my confidence is unshaken.
In theory, you'd think that Dodd's prediction would offer an opportunity to revise his beliefs. Cynics argue that allowing rules that require a party to ignore its own political self-interest is untenable. Dodd counters that the minority will, out of some grand sense of the national interest, choose to work cooperatively to solve national problems. If this fails to happen, Dodd will revise his views about filibuster reform, right?