Opinion: State of the Senate

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Political scientists, analysts, professors, historians and even everyday citizens have been ruminating lately on the health of American democracy. A fever seems to have consumed the political discourse, beginning with the Republican Revolution in 1994. Since then hyper-partisanship and tribalism have surged. Worryingly, this disease has only seemed to grow worse as time passes. Yet this increase has proven particularly problematic in the U.S. Senate, which is the key to understanding this disease.  

Understanding the Senate means first understanding Congress because tribalism in the House of Representatives is altogether not a fundamentally new concept.

The House was deliberately designed by the framers of the Constitution to be more or less responsive to the popular passions and shifts in the mood of the electorate. Hence the two year terms, and the entire House being up for reelection every cycle as well as no real mechanism ever existing in the House for the minority to significantly hinder a united majority since the early days of the Republic.

Any minority right in the House was squashed during the speakership of “Czar” Thomas Reed who lived by the maxim that in the House, “[the] best system is to have one party govern and the other party watch” and concentrated power in the hands of the Speaker. A series of powerful Speakers followed Reed and though many old guard members of the House grumbled about the reforms, more and more power concentrated in the hands of the Speaker and the majority at the expense of the rank and file and the minority.

The Senate was designed as a different institution altogether. It was designed as a deliberative body to act as a bulwark against popular passions. James Madison explained the purpose of the Senate as to be a “necessary fence against the ‘fickleness and passion’ that prevailed in the House of Representatives and the among the general public.

Washington compared the Senate to a saucer, cooling popular passions as the saucer did tea.  The framers shrewdly saw the Senate might, in the course of their duties, incur the wrath of the people and so designed it with numerous safeguards built in.

Six year terms – the longest for a federal office in the nation – were given to senators, the terms were staggered so in effect the people may never at one time repudiate the Senate as they could the House or the Executive. At an absolute maximum after an election, even if every member lost their seat, two-thirds of the Senate would remain the same as it was before. Finally, the Senate was not conceived to be originally answerable to the people directly but to the state legislatures.  

These safeguards gave the Senate an entirely different atmosphere than the House and one that influenced a different set of rules. According to Robert Caro, author of “Master of the Senate,” in the Senate, cooperation was also critical for the Senate to have mechanisms through which the minority may impede the majority – most notably the filibuster.

The Senate as originally conceived proved far too rigid and traditionalist and twice threatened the existence of the republic. Once from the Gilded Age through the Jazz Age, the Senate was the primary institution opposing progressives and through the laissez-faire policies championed in the Senate, the country toppled into the Great Depression.

Even more egregious was the Senate’s role in protecting segregation. For eighty-five years, from 1885 to 1957, the Senate was the institution where the segregationists beat back attempts to pass any civil rights bill through the usage of a seniority system in place in the Senate and the filibuster. According to Caro, it would take an alignment of a myriad of factors for the segregationists to finally be defeated and a meaningful civil rights bill passed in 1964.

Understandably after the segregationists abused the powers of a minority in the Senate, reforms aiming to curtail that power began. These reforms spread gradually and weakened the power of individual senators and of chairs of the senate committees while concentrating power in the hands of the Caucus Leaders. The Senate accidentally made filibusters more politically viable making 60 vote supermajority necessary. Still, despite flashes of concern, senate comity and collegiality, the rules and the customs of the Senate kept it operating mostly smoothly throughout the rest of the 20th century.

Then came the election of President Barack Obama in 2008 and the rise of Mitch McConnell as Republican Senate Leader. The senior senator from Kentucky would readily admit his single overriding objective was to deny President Obama a second term and to act as an obstructionist to any Obama initiative not on its merits, but simply because it was an Obama initiative.

To accomplish this goal, the Kentuckian gleefully sacrificed the norms and more upon which the Senate depends. He committed his Caucus to the destruction of Senatorial norms, and partisanship at all costs, obstructing President Obama’s agenda at every opportunity, delaying hearings on nominees that requires Senate confirmation, and even reaching the point of refusing a hearing to his Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland.

McConnell has made the Senate more in the mold of the House, changing the chamber into a bitterly partisanized institution, both indirectly by his obstructionists tactic while in the minority and directly as the Senate Majority Leader.  

That is not how the Senate was intended to function, and it does not function effectively under these conditions. The Senate is at its most effective when bipartisanship and compromise rule.

The Senator from Kentucky is not the sole cause of the polarization and tribalism of the Senate, but he has accelerated it at a breakneck speed. The Senate, intended to be the preserver of the republic, has become feverishly inflamed itself and the damage has been done. Even if McConnell stepped down tomorrow from the Senate, the corrosion would not simply heal itself.

It would require active conscious action from senators of both parties. It would mean once more extending rights and privileges to the minority party even when it inconveniences the majority and trusting the minority to not abuse their privileges. It would mean bipartisanship and defying the extreme wings of both parties which argue that compromise is a weakness.

The restoration of the Senate would require more senators of rare statesmanship. More following in the mold of the former Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.)  and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). Both Kennedy and McCain were partisans, both were icons to their parties, but both were also known for their bipartisan credentials and their willingness and eagerness to genuinely work across the aisle.

Restoring the Senate is a critical step in re-stabilizing American politics. Many Democrats like to subscribe to the comforting illusion that if Trump is defeated in 2020 then the political system will suddenly be saved. The rot at the center of our politics predates Trump though, and while his defeat would slow the progress of the disease, it alone is not the cure.

The polarization has its roots in the conclusion of the Cold War and the removal of that grand unifying principle of American politics. A grand reformation is needed and that starts in the Senate.

An independent Senate, unbeholden to a President, unbeholden to a perpetual sixty vote supermajority, but with an effective filibuster in place is a vital step to returning the United States to a vibrant, vigorous, functioning republic.

Photo courtesy of voiceofpeopletoday.com.

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