If you're wondering why we aren't pumping out post after post on events of legislative significance in the U.S. Senate, here's why: nothing's going on.
Yes, the Senate voted down the Ryan budget. Yes, the Senate voted not to take up President Obama's initial budget proposal. And yes, the Senate voted down a Republican bill to expand drilling and a Democratic bill to reduce big oil tax cuts. While everyone is getting angry and excited about Senator so-and-so's position on the Ryan budget or anything else, however, it's important to note that none of these measures were expected to pass at the time of the vote and are therefore insignificant in terms of actually governing.
Voting serves two important functions: (1) to produce a coalition in favor of making something a law and (2) to require Senators to take a public stand on an issue. And when votes are expected to fail but take place anyway, Senators who might think more carefully about the consequences don't -- because there's no chance of actually legislating. Instead, virtually every recent vote in the U.S. Senate is a way of telling the electorate where Senators stand and what the distinctions are between parties and candidates.
There are two plausible reasons for this "voting for the peanut gallery" trend. First, the 2012 elections are coming up. We live in a time when the most vulnerable Republican senators can't take positions far from the party line for fear of empowering a primary challenger. At the same time, the extreme positions Senators must take in a primary may alienate key constituencies in a general election. Therefore, voting on various bills is a way of forcing Senators to take a position that will put them between a rock and a hard place in the campaign.
Secondly, taking party line votes that are designed to fail is a way of staking out positions in the general economic debate. Democrats want to magnify Republican attitudes toward Medicare by allowing a vote on the issue through the Ryan budget, and also encourage Americans watching the debate to view those plans with distaste. Democrats also want to demonstrate that Republicans are willing to put virtually every Democratic program on the cutting board, but are unwilling to tackle corporate greed or the wealthy through tax reform. Republicans want the American people to see that Democrats are stalling on the budget and not willing to take necessary measures to cut the deficit. All of this affects the prospects of future economic legislation and the nature of the economic debate once the 2012 campaign gets started.
While we do hope there will be legislation truly worth covering at this point, it is clear that in Congress, the 2012 elections have already begun.