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.
Jessica Senior. New York Magazine. 1 April 2010.
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.
- 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 citizens care about their government on the state level. By restoring the state legislature’s power to choose national representatives, those interested in national politics would be forced to turn their eye to the local issues as well. (Which, as has been mentioned here before, is itself a prerequisite for a healthy Republic.)
- 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.”