During his 26 years in the U.S. Senate, Kent Conrad rose to become a leading expert on the federal budget and demonstrated many times his willingness to cross party lines. But in his farewell remarks in December, the retiring Democrat from North Dakota scolded his colleagues for a growing partisanship that in recent years has all but paralyzed the Senate and the political system.

"We spend now too much of our time seeking partisan advantage; we spend too little time trying to solve problems," he told them.

Conrad was right, of course. His harsh words matched the sentiments of a stream of other moderates who departed the Senate last year -- or will soon depart it -- including Republicans Olympia Snowe of Maine, Richard Lugar of Indiana and Scott Brown of Massachusetts, and Democrats Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Jim Webb of Virginia and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia.

Of the 18 senators who left last year for one reason or another, or announced their impending retirements, 12 were rated as moderates by That's My Congress, which analyzes voting records. Of their replacements, half are expected to be more ideological in their approach.

In addition to those 12, we would add Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., who is retiring, and Lugar, who was defeated last year, because both have shown a willingness to be bipartisan problem-solvers.

The dysfunction prompted former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican presidential candidate early in the 2012 campaign, to bemoan the divided nature of today's politics in a speech Wednesday in Washington.

"Sadly, we have become a government by crisis," Pawlenty told a conference organized by the Business Roundtable. "Things get done only when there is a moment of crisis."

The trend away from collaboration validates the blistering critique leveled last year by congressional scholars Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein in their acclaimed book "It's Even Worse than it Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism."

In it, the authors decried the rise of rigid, parliamentary-style politics in a system designed for compromise. Reluctantly, they blamed Republicans for the problem. The tactics of the House are seeping into the Senate, they warned, adding that the body designed to be thoughtful and deliberative has become anything but.

Their signature example involved the extraordinary effort in 2009 by Conrad and others to force an up-or-down vote on a bipartisan solution to the debt problem, a solution backed by the Senate's Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, and others, including Sen. John McCain.

"This proposal is our best hope for addressing the out-of-control spending and debt levels that are threatening our nation's fiscal future," McConnell said in urging President Obama to join the effort.

But eight months later, when the issue came to a vote, McConnell and McCain used a filibuster to kill their own idea. Why? Because Obama had come out in favor of it.

It's that kind of cynicism that drives moderates out of the Senate.

"This is about frustration," Chambliss said in announcing that he will retire next year. Chambliss, despite one of the Senate's most conservative voting records, has endured withering criticism from his own party for his willingness to work with Democrats on taxes and other issues.

"Sadly, I don't see the legislative gridlock and partisan posturing improving anytime soon," he concluded.

While a bipartisan effort has emerged on immigration reform, the so-called "gang of eight" initiative is the exception, not the rule in a Congress enveloped in extreme partisanship. The Senate now routinely employs the filibuster to stop bills favored by the majority, and it uses fake legislative sessions to frustrate the president's appointments to government agencies. The House majority, meanwhile, is kept in place by an elaborate gerrymandering scheme.

Republicans polled 1.4 million fewer votes than Democrats in November but managed to retain the House, 234-201.

In such an atmosphere it's nearly impossible for moderation to find fertile ground, and it's no mystery why those seeking moderate solutions to the nation's problems are heading for the exits.


An editorial of the Star Tribune, Minneapolis.