May 23, 2005

Either Way, Bad Senate

With Republicans all set to override the rules of the Senate with their nuclear-mania, it's probably worth taking a quick look through history and trying to figure out why we even have an upper chamber. Jefferson's line about the Senate being "a saucer into which the nation's passions may be poured to cool" has often been quoted. And indeed, that's how the Senate was created: a chamber insulated against the masses, with its long terms and staggered elections and members who answer only to their individual states. Optimally, then, what we would expect—what, presumably, the good ol' Founders expected—is for the Senate to be a place where legislation and ideas are debated, not demagogued, where arguments and reasons win, rather than crude and stark political power.

Obviously Bill Frist is trying to change all that, as Harry Reid has pointed out. But really, what's he changing it from? When was the last time the Senate resembled, in any way, shape, or form a place where passions were "poured to cool"?

1850, perhaps, when Calhoun saved the Union with his Senate compromise on slave states. (The usual argument here is: had the country split in 1850, rather than a decade later, the North wouldn't have been so united on abolition, and likely not able to win a war against the South.) But after that, the Senate has been damned near useless. A house of opulence and corruption all through the Gilded Age. The place that sneered at Wilson's League of Nations, and nixed it, despite all the exhortations of a popular president. The place that sat, with arms crossed, and refused to prepare for World War II all through the 1930s. And, of course, the place that allowed Southern Democrats, via the seniority system and filibuster, to obstruct widely popular civil rights legislation for decades and decades. None of this was passion "poured to cool"—no, it was just one massive ice block, frozen and dumb. The two big exceptions were FDR's first 100 days, when the Senate was dumbfounded by the 1932 elections and passed many of Roosevelt's bills without even reading them (after 1936, though, the Senate thwarted virtually all of the president's domestic legislation), and, of course, Lyndon Johnson's singular time at the helm.

So really, I have no special brief for the Senate. It's rarely served any useful purpose—at least from a progressive perspective—and if it was set up to promote "deliberative democracy," it has more often been used to wage petty power struggles. Perhaps in the 1970s and 1980s there was a "golden era" of compromise, deliberation, alliance-forming, etc., among Senators. Perhaps not. Nevertheless, that era has quite clearly disappeared over the past decade, and moved in precisely the opposite direction. Both parties are pretty ideologically homogenous nowadays, and, as Mark Schmitt pointed out the other day, most of Senate work is done through the budget reconciliation process, which cannot be filibustered—one could add that time for debate is limited here, and no amendments are usually allowed. True, it's no longer an ice block, but now the Senate has become just another place where the majority pushes through whatever it damned well feels like, with little reason or deliberation, and where passions are allowed to run as high as they can go. Really, the "nuclear option" just pushes this trend to its logical conclusion. And it's not, in itself, a bad conclusion—considering the alternative.

The problem here, of course, is that the Senate isn't set up to be this sort of "majority rules" institution. For one good reason, it's not at all representative: the 44 Democrats plus Jeffords received more votes over the last 3 cycles than their Republican counterparts, and if each senator represents half a state, the minority party represents 50.8 percent of the population. Now the good thing for Republicans is that this imbalance works in their favor, and likely will for a long time—of the 20 least populous states, only five are reliably blue (Vermont, Delaware, Rhode Island, Hawaii, Maine), and it's likely that Republicans will be able to keep a healthy Senate majority more often than not, even without a national majority.

There's no good reason to do things like this—and I doubt the three or four honest Republicans in this country would disagree. So either the Senate needs to be reorganized so that, if it's just a glorified House, at least it's representative, or else the whole trend should be reversed. At any rate, not an institution I'll be happy with either way!
-- Brad Plumer 1:52 PM || ||