The Senate: Appendix or Brain Stem?

One of the more interesting themes to come out of last week’s discussion of possible amendments to the Constitution was the idea that the Senate is a crummy institution and ought to be done away with. I can certainly understand that these days, what with Max Baucus holding health care reform hostage to his monumental ego.

I know the Senate has always gotten a bad rap–it’s hard to overcome the idea that it was designed to keep the hoi polloi like you and me from screwing up the government. But given some of the wacky things that have made it to the floor of the House of Representatives over the years, I have to say I don’t mind the stodgy old Senate too much. To put it in perspective, I offer the ultimate wacky thing that made it to the House:


So, is it wise to have a branch of the legislature that by its nature acts as a brake to slow down a rush to bad legislation? Or is the Senate an inherently conservative body that prevents good legislation from getting passed? (I know, I know–the world isn’t black and white. But for the sake of argument, it’s much easier to pose the question in that way, and allow the middle ground to come out in the discussion.)

For my part, I will say this: an institution is only as good as the people running it. My feeling is there isn’t a problem in the Senate that couldn’t be solved by electing better Senators. Whether that is possible, however, is an entirely different question. But it does lead to another question: is there a way to improve either the electoral process or the structure of the Senate that might help overcome some of the biggest problems in that body?

And more important, is there anything we as citizens can do to help fix it?

11 thoughts on “The Senate: Appendix or Brain Stem?

  1. It’s not that there isa problem with the Senate; there are several. I’m not saying that you said that there was just one, but that’s often how the issue gets put.
    First and foremost, of course, is that you can pretty much buy a Senator with some campaign contributions–electing better Senators isn’t guaranteed, but is certainly easier to achieve, with serious campaign finance reform. The countermajoritarian tendencies of the body can be troublesome, too–not just the framework that allows Wyoming to have and equal say vis-a-vis, say, California, but the rules that the Senators themselves enact (e.g,. the filibuster) and then treat as sacrosanct. Finally, the fact that everyone–everyone!–in the Senate is a millionaire is, in my mind, shameful. It’s possible to empathize with the conditions of the working public (see Kennedy, Ted, for a prime example), but it’s hard to really understand the plight of the non-rich or non-upper-middle-class when you’re sitting on enough money to make Scrooge McDuck envious.
    What to do? Hell, that’s a tough one. The barriers to campaign finance reform are significant. You can’t expect powerful people, generally, to act in ways that diminish their power. Which is what Senators voting for campaign finance reform are doing–encouraging competition increases the probability that you’re gonna get voted out of office. Senate rules would be easier to address, but still tough. As far as electing non-rich people, well, that little thing called “earning a living” tends to stand in the way of most people campaigning for office.
    Oh, and it would help if the Republicans weren’t kowtowing to the craziest of the crazies. Ditto if the Democrats would stop acting like the Republicans are negotiating in anything approaching good faith.

  2. My biggest problem with the Senate is the equalization of the power of states regardless of population. It might not have been a big problem when the Senate was formed but I highly doubt anyone anticipated the current imbalance, where a state like California has a greater population than the 21 least populated states combined but has the same 2 votes in the Senate.

  3. Ink Asylum, the one problem with getting rid of the equal representation idea is that there are some situations where the majority shouldn’t rule. For example, water rights. Does California deserve to get all the water just because they have enormous populations in areas that really shouldn’t have that many people? Having purely proportional representation might lead to such an outcome. Should Colorado pay the price for California’s ill-advised growth?
    Another example: a lot of the smaller-population states have large tracts of federally-owned land. Should the large-population states have the right to dictate how that land is used when they don’t see the consequences of that use?
    The reasons the Founding Fathers incorporated equal representation haven’t gone away. I’m not saying there aren’t situations where equal representation sucks. I’m just saying don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.
    And Jude, you’re absolutely right on all points. The only thing I’d say is that there is power in numbers. If we could figure out a way to harness the power of the voting public to change the way campaigns and lobbying are handled, maybe we could improve things. It’s the how of that I can’t figure out…

  4. Like Jude said, there is an inherrent problem with one segment of the country can buy a senator.
    I would see problems doing away with the Senate. However, I would also say a lot of the problem is that the Senate has had 200 years to layer one layer of arcane rules on top of another. Rules that may have been a good idea at the time a rotting beneath other layers of similar rules.
    The Senate could simplify the rule structure by one stroke of a pen (that is, if the rule changes could be bypassed in order to even get this to a vote.

  5. I’m ready to ditch the Senate, or else to relegate it to junior status whereby it could be overruled by a large House majority.
    It has been a bulwark both for and against things I like, but on balance I think it’s an out-dated mechanism. The role of the states has ebbed so much (I haven’t heard a single wing-nut complain that the proposed no-recission rule “violates states’ rights” (which it does)), that the idea of each state having a role is not helping to make society better. So out it goes.
    I’d also point out that many of the problems of the Senate are, like the House, trace-able to the faction that wants to starve the government of resources, which results in not enough money to run campaigns, and, not at all trivially, not enough money to live on. Were we to have public-funding of campaigns up to quite high levels, and triple the salary for legislators, I think we’d suddenly find that the government was significantly less beholden to rich people and more interested in helping voters.

  6. We need a constitutional convention, wherein a host of issues can be addressed, such as campaign finance reform,equal protection with teeth, tax laws, and others. But no one will go for it. The Founders envisioned no more than 20 years between conventions, yet there hasn’t been one for almost 200 years.

  7. A constitutional convention seems like a good idea, until you think about it too much. Suppose such a convention had been convened in 2002? Would we now be happy with the result of that – a very limited bill of rights, if any at all, a very powerful President, acting virtually as a King, a state religion with everyone required to worship there, outlawing of turbans for men, outlawing of the word “Allah”, etc. Outlandish as that sounds, that would have been the result of a convention in 2002.
    Our problems with Congress always end up being caused by the people we persist in electing. Take a Democrat, Diane Feinstein, for example. That woman just doesn’t belong in the Senate. But, if she runs again she will be reelected again. We, as voters, are so disconnected with day to day politics that most of us rely on news reports, what the pundits tell us, advertisements on TV, advertisements on TV, and more advertisements on TV. That make voting intelligently very, very improbable.

  8. The issue of California’s representation in the Senate can be addressed by dividing California into two or more states, of course.

  9. See, hoppy, that’s exactly what I was getting at with my last paragraph. It does us no good to revise the Constitution if we keep electing the same kind of people to run things. The American government may have been invented by geniuses to be run by idiots, but there is no government that is entirely idiot-proof.
    So again I ask: what do we do about it? I’m not a fan of throwing up my hands and saying it’s unfixable. I certainly don’t expect an instant solution, but I’d like to think we could come up with some basic steps that might at least set us on the right path.

  10. Suppose the ACLU or another institution were to sue the government because it violates the one man one vote rule the Supreme Court ruled was the law of the land. The Senate grossly violates that rule. The remedy would be to equalize the populations of the states, just as we now equalize the populations of congressional districts. California would shrink. Oregon would grow. The Dakotas would grow a lot. Alaska…has Palin, what else do they need?
    Ok, that great idea is up the flagpole…now SALUTE!

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