Dear America, thanks for letting us play with your Senate. Sorry we broke it. Best, Republicans.

9 Dec

The U.S. Congress has two houses for a reason. The House of Representatives is the very democratic, majority rules, free-for-all. The Senate is supposed to be the more deliberative, contemplative, august body that weighs the significant issues and gives every state an equal vote in major national issues. The minority party has a certain level of authority in the Senate, allowing, hypothetically, a broader spectrum of input. Bad news, folks, it just doesn’t work that way anymore.

If you’ve heard/watched/surfed any news over the past two years, you’ve been bombarded with they myth of the 60-vote majority. The Republicans in the Senate have hijacked the filibuster to derail any issue they dislike. Because they are much better at voting in lockstep than the Democrats, even a 60/40 split paralyzed action on major issues. Action in the Senate has come down to a minority vote of fewer than 40 rather than a majority vote of 51 or more. This is wrong. However much CNN wants you to believe it, a 60-vote majority is not a part of the Founding Fathers’ plan for the Senate.

The filibuster was intended as a measure to continue debate so that all aspects of a key issue could be considered. If a Senator found a particular issue particularly troublesome, he or she could hold the floor to wear down the opposition. Now all one has to do to derail an issue is imply that one might not vote to suspend debate, which takes 60 votes. Suddenly the hypothetical moderate Republicans like Susan Collins of Maine get huge amounts of control as Harry Reid and President Obama court them with all kinds of promises and negotiations, just to get them to agree to end debate. (Republican in Petulant Jackass Clothing Joe Lieberman plays this card a lot too.)

Back when the Republicans held the Senate, Democrats tried to use the filibuster to block noxious Bush appointees. The Republicans threatened the “nuclear option” which would have changed the rules (at least for appointments) to minimize the use of cloture votes and the 60-vote requirement. A gang of 14 Senators panicked and agreed to let most of the nominees get through so the rules wouldn’t change. Bad plan – the rules don’t work any more and need to change. Yes, some day the Republicans will control the Senate again and I’ll be a bit sad that the supermajority isn’t required for every little thing. But here’s the rub – those rules can change with a simple majority vote at the start of each new Congress. You think the Republicans won’t take advantage of that as soon as they can?

Let’s use our (shrinking) majority to accomplish something. At the start of the new Congress in January, the Senate needs to change the rules of debate and voting. Respect for the minority should be reasonably maintained, but the power of the minority to hobble legislative action should be eliminated. Harry Reid should remember that he’s the Majority Leader, not Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, Scott Brown, or Joe Lieberman. We need legislative action, not more partisan paralysis. Bad deals and goofy negotiations to maybe get one Republican to consider voting to end the bloody debate must end. If it doesn’t, we wind up with more watered-down healtcare initiatives, no action on climate change, and billionaires holding the unemployed hostage.

P.S. – Cheers for my Senator Jeff Merkley for a strong proposal to improve the rules.

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6 Responses to “Dear America, thanks for letting us play with your Senate. Sorry we broke it. Best, Republicans.”

  1. Charles December 10, 2010 at 2:39 am #

    I finished reading your blog post but I sort-of stopped reading mentally when I read, quote: “The Senate is supposed to be the more deliberative, contemplative, august body that weighs the significant issues and gives every state an equal vote in major national issues. The minority party has a certain level of authority in the Senate, allowing, hypothetically, a broader spectrum of input. Bad news, folks, it just doesn’t work that way anymore.”

    You were right when you said, quote: “The U.S. Congress has two houses for a reason. The House of Representatives is the very democratic, majority rules, free-for-all.”

    You were wrong when you said, quote: “The Senate…gives every state an equal vote in major national issues.”

    The Senate doesn’t represent the States of the Union anymore, they represent the People. The 17th Amendment changed that power to the States. It basically turned the Senate into a Second House of Representatives. The States have NO SAY in the Senate whatsoever outside of appointing a replacement Senator should a Senator either die, go to jail, gain another office (like President Obama), or other circumstances. Outside of that the States have no input in the Federal Government.

    The States have to pay for parts of government welfare, correct? Did the States have a say in whether or not they wanted to pay for part of that welfare? No, they didn’t because they no longer have representation in the Federal Government. Both the Senate and the House are both House of Representatives. Neither is different from the other in terms they both represent the People and leave out the States from the Federal Government.

    • rhulshofschmidt December 10, 2010 at 6:55 am #

      Interesting points, Charles. Thanks for your comment. It might be interesting to debate the value of direct election of Senators at some point, although that’s not my purpose here.

      My point about the difference between representation in the chambers of Congress is that the House is proportional to population (as much as the basic structure allows) and the Senate is fiercely egalitarian in that Wyoming and California have the same level of representation.

      My focus is really on the rules of debate, which have become a means of obstruction rather than a tool to allow for reasonable airing of minority views. However our Senators are selected, the rules they use to govern are broken.

  2. Charles December 10, 2010 at 2:44 am #

    Also, it is interesting to state that the 63rd Congress that adopted this Constitutional Amendment were both controlled by the Democrat Party under a Democrat President (Woodrow Wilson).

    • rhulshofschmidt December 10, 2010 at 7:07 am #

      Sorry, Charles, I have to correct you here. The 17th Amendment was proposed by Republican Senator Joseph L. Bristow of Kansas and supported by Republican Senator William Borah of Idaho, himself a product of direct election. It was debated and passed in the 62nd Congress, with a Republican-controlled Senate and a Democratic-controlled House. President Taft (R) was in the White House.

      True, the Amendment was ratified in 1913, after the 63rd Congress was seated and Wilson (a debatable Democrat by 21st Century standards) was President. But it was passed by the previous Congress. Note: it was ratified by a majority of states. The states themselves wanted direct election, in large part because the original model was resulting in lengthy periods during which states were missing a Senator.

      In fact, Congress took up the issue because there were nearly enough states clamoring for it to force a Constitutional Convention. That would have required a 2/3 majority of states. Ratification required 3/4 of the states and was easily achieved within a year of Congress’ action. (Only ONE state, Utah, explicitly rejected the Amendment.)

      It’s hard to accept any argument that direct election violates states’ rights when states used their constitutional rights to achieve direct election. I’m particularly proud of my home state of Oregon, a pioneer in this area.

      • Charles December 10, 2010 at 8:03 am #

        I do stand corrected. I believed I had the dates right and my research correct, but upon further investigation I was not correct. Thank you for the correction.

      • rhulshofschmidt December 10, 2010 at 8:07 am #

        Very gracious, Charles. The drawn-out process of ratification can make precise tracking of amendment action a bit tricky.

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