A Few Thoughts on the Senate

A firm belief of mine is that one of the greatest tasks facing this generation is the meaningful reform of America’s federal legislative system. We live in a time dominated by independent government agencies, imperial presidencies, and unabashedly insular party machines. In such an environment it is all too easy for the legislature to become an appendage – an afterthought. What was designed to be the depository of the people’s will, a forum for serious political discourse, and the wellspring of national policy has degraded over the centuries. What we now possess is a binary legislature that alternates between the role of rubber stamp and road block depending upon which party is in the majority. What should rightly be the tool of the states and the people has become a tool for the parties and the interests that back them.

I have thought about this issue a great deal, and I could write about it a great deal more. This post will limit itself to the Senate, and submit a potential solution to the maladies that ail it.
One month ago New York Magazine published an insightful article by Jennifer Senior chronicling the Senate’s decline into dysfunction and partisan bickery. The report is a good one, and I suggest that all of my readers take the time to read it in full before commenting on this post. In it, Senior writes the following:

In the opening pages of Master of the Senate, Robert Caro elegantly explains what the framers had originally designed the upper chamber of Congress to be. First, and most famously, the Senate was meant to check executive power; but second—and equally important—it was meant to hover above the populist rabble, or, in James Madison’s words, “to protect the people against the transient impressions into which they themselves might be led.” Let the House members be ambassadors of those transient impressions; the Senate’s job was to provide intellectual stability and continuity. That’s why the minimum age of a senator is older than that of a House member (30 versus 25), and one of the reasons the Senate is so much smaller: to guard against “intemperate and pernicious resolutions” of “factious leaders.” That’s why only one third of the Senate is up for reelection at a time, and why senators’ terms are longer than the president’s: to protect against “mutable policy,” to “hold their offices for a term sufficient to insure their independency.”

But if you look at the Senate of today, all of those structural differences pretty much amount to nothing. The Senate has capitulated entirely to popular sentiment, or (in Madison’s words again) “popular fluctuations.” Just look at that tea-party-inspired amendment spree, or the senators’ repeated declarations that health-care reform ought not to pass because polls showed that people were against it. The institution is plenty “factious” and “intemperate”: A number of Democrats I spoke to noted that they couldn’t remember a single Republican on the floor when Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader, made his farewell speech, in 2004. And those six-year terms aren’t exactly providing much intellectual stability. How could they, when a contentious Senate race—Daschle’s, for instance—can cost upwards of $20 million, forcing senators to chase money hour to hour, month to month, year to year?

The Senate, in short, has become another House of Representatives. In fact, almost half of today’s Senate—49 percent—is made up of former House members (as opposed to 1993, say, when the number was 34). During health-care week, it was the House that tuned out the polls and the Senate that went into partisan overdrive—pouring forth talk-radio cant, shutting down government (right out of Newt’s playbook), and pinning as many amendments onto this donkey as was legislatively possible, all in an effort to beat back a bill that, like a common bill in the House, required just a bare majority vote.

Senior seems surprised that the Senate has become a second House of Representatives. She should not be. We have thrown out the institutional checks the framers designed to prevent the Senate from becoming slave to ‘popular fluctuations.’ It was only a matter of time before the norms that maintained the Senate’s dignity were also discarded.
The institutional check I refer to is the original method by which our senators were chosen. While the members of the House of Representatives were chosen directly by the people, the senators were chosen by the legislatures of the states they represented. Senators were not thought of as representatives of the people, but as delegates from the states. Not unlike today’s diplomats, the only link between these statesmen and the people they represented were the governments the latter had elected.
This connection was a tenuous one. As the prominence of state governments on the national stage  receded  over time the number of people comfortable with the role these governments had in selecting their representatives grew smaller. The end result was the Seventeenth Amendment, which brought senatorial elections to their current form.
The consequences of this change are worth reflection. The amendment is usually championed as a triumph of democracy and direct representation. And so it was, when first implemented. Yet the amendment has not aged well. A century of population growth and technological progress has changed the nature of our political system in ways the original writers of the amendment could not have foreseen. Popular election was supposed to weaken state political machines, reduce corruption, and place the mass of the citizenry upon a commanding height where none could touch them. This has not happened. Corruption on the state level was simply replaced by corruption on the national level. Senatorial elections have became national affairs; the senators who win are those who gain the financial and political support of the corporations, donors, and politicians from the nation’s cashpots.  The direct representation promised by the Seventeenth Amendment has proved itself to be illusionary.  
This is the what the Seventeenth Amendment has given us. Now allow me to propose a counterfactual: how would the Republic have fared if the amendment had never passed? A few guesses:
  • An America without the Seventeenth Amendment is an America where senators would not spend the majority of their time on the campaign trail. In Ms. Senior’s terms, they would be less like demagogues and more like statesmen.
  •  An America without the Seventeenth Amendment is an America where special interest groups, corporations, and big donors wield little influence in the Senate chambers. Absent popular campaigns and there is little need to fill the campaign chest.
  • An America without the Seventeenth Amendment is an America where the senators care about their government on the state level. This would kill the growing Parliamentism of American politics; a senator elected by the legislature identifies with his constituents more than he does his party.   
  • An America without the Seventeenth Amendment is an America where power is more equitably distributed across the nation. It would be a strong first step towards ending what one writer has termed “The Tyranny of Washington, D.C.”   
I ask my countrymen to put this matter at the forefront of their thoughts. If a Republic truly cannot thrive without a body of restraint, experience, and reason to temper its passions and politics, then we must find a way to instill these traits into the form of our government. The current model fails in this task.  Perhaps it is time we consider restoring the institutions that will not.

Leave a Comment



In a different forum you suggested:

it would be far better [for those who dislike the 17th to] get working on the development of their ideas and presenting them to the public rather than building on the morass of dissatisfaction that is getting to be so tiresome in our society.

This post was an attempt to do just that. If you find its arguments compelling, I ask for you to do no more than spread it to other interested parties. At this point the best I can do is convince a sizeable number of people that repealing the 17th is not an idea restricted to crazies.