The keen line of questioning resulted in some insightful, disheartening reflections on the way the Senate fails to work:

Encumbered with aides, prodded by hourly jolts from electronic media, racing from the hearing room to the caucus lunch to the Power Hour to the airport, senators no longer have the time, or perhaps the inclination, to get to know one another—least of all, members of the other party. Friendships across party lines are more likely among the few spouses who live in Washington. After Udall joined the Senate, last year, he was invited to dinner by Alexander, because Jill Cooper Udall and Honey Alexander had become friends through a women’s social club. It remains the only time Udall has set foot in the house of a Republican senator. (Vice-President Joe Biden, in his autobiography, recalls that, in the seventies, a bipartisan group of senators and their wives hosted a monthly dinner: “In those days Democrats and Republicans actually enjoyed each other’s company.”) When I asked Chris Dodd how well he knew, for example, Jim DeMint, Dodd said, “Not at all. Whereas Jesse Helms and I knew each other pretty well.” He repeated something that Jon Kyl, the Republican whip, from Arizona, had recently said to him: “There’s no trust.” Dodd, whose father was a senator, went on, “That’s really all there is—this place really operates on that. I don’t think anyone would argue with that conclusion. And if that’s missing … ”

We could go on excerpting the best bits all day, but we suggest you reserve a solid half-hour and read it yourself. Don’t miss Packer’s observations about the media’s culpability in the Senate’s regression. From the piece:

Bloggers carry so much influence that many senators have a young press aide dedicated to the care and feeding of online media. News about, by, and for a tiny kingdom of political obsessives dominates the attention of senators and staff, while stories that might affect their constituents go unreported because their home-state papers can no longer afford to have bureaus in Washington. Dodd, who came to the Senate in 1981 and will leave next January, told me, “I used to have eleven Connecticut newspaper reporters who covered me on a daily basis. I don’t have one today, and haven’t had one in a number of years. Instead, D.C. publications only see me through the prism of conflict.” Lamar Alexander described the effect as “this instant radicalizing of positions to the left and the right.”

When I asked Packer about the role of the new media in distracting, sidetracking, and possibly damaging the Senate—questions I asked for this, umm, blog post—he mentioned some flare-ups that happened in his four months of reporting in Washington. “It leaked out that Jim Bunning called Harry Reid an idiot during the Republican caucus lunch,” he recalled. “Then Democrats have to respond to that. And Scott Brown appeared to have given his word to Harry Reid that he was going to vote for financial reform and then suddenly at the last minute he had new conditions and votes against it. Harry Reid feels betrayed.”

“These are not new things, but they are magnified by the hour-to-hour coverage,” Packer says. “[The senators have] each got a heavily armed communications shop issuing press blasts every hour. There’s this constant sniping, if not all-out shelling, going on that is actually a bit misleading; I don’t think when they sit down and talk to each other they feel quite so much hatred as they seem to in their press and their statements. But the only way, increasingly, that they know each other, especially across party lines, is through what someone’s aide said to Politico or on a Twitter feed.”

While Packer attributes much of this to aides—“I’ve found that the senators seem sometimes more like figureheads for their staff than like the guys who are leading a show”—the legislators, he says, are complicit in the game. “All the senators say 24/7 media trivializes our politics. But they’re like a guy who complains about the effect of his own drinking. They’re deeply implicated in this and yet they all complain about it.”

By the end of his reporting, Packer was something of the beat-down Baghdad correspondent, mixing optimism with grim reality. “I was sympathetic to the freshmen,” he says, “because I was kind of a freshman there myself. But I saw through their eyes how little gets done and how unnecessarily sunk the Senate is in its own arcana. I met some very bright and high-minded freshman senators who in a few years are either going to quit or become creatures of the habitat.”

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.