The Senate: The Vestigal House?

We often hear the United States Senate referred to as “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” That expression was coined by the fifteenth President of the United States, the otherwise unremarkable James Buchanan. You could say that the United States Civil War was just Abraham Lincoln cleaning up the mess Buchanan left behind. Since Buchanan was himself once a Senator, calling a body of which he was a member “the world’s greatest” anything smacks of shameless self-promotion.

If Kobe Bryant went around referring to the 1999-2000 Los Angeles Lakers as “the single greatest team to ever play the game of basketball,” even hardcore Laker fans would be rolling their eyes at his presumption.

Even if the Senate ever deserved the title of “world’s greatest deliberative body,” it earned it during the first half of the nineteenth century with the epic debates over the issue of slavery between giant personalities like Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun. The luster comes off the reputation of those debates when you contemplate that one side was arguing for the right to continue enslaving other human beings. How great could they be when these only only led to the Missouri Compromise of 1820 or the Compromise of 1850, both of which merely defused the slavery issue temporarily while leaving people in chains.

If the United States Senate had really been the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” don’t you think they would have found a way to end slavery without the deaths of 600,000 Americans in a bloody civil war?

After the Civil War and the end of Reconstruction, the reputation of the United States Senate took a beating that lasted until the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 1960s, a beating that was well-deserved.

After Reconstruction, the old social order of the South reestablished itself as much as it could, crushing embryonic efforts at civil rights and returning black Americans to a status that seemed only marginally improved from the days of slavery. Southern Senators, despite their small numbers, used their mastery of political tactics and Senate rules to swat down even the most modest attempts at civil rights legislation for decades. Whenever a civil rights bills passed the House, the Southern Democrats would join forces with conservative midwestern Republicans to make certain those bills never even reached the floor of the Senate, or never got a vote if they did reach the floor.

Master of the Senate, the third volume of Robert Caro’s massive biography, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, is not just a detailed account of the 36th President at the height of his power. The first part of the third volume could stand alone as a history of the Senate itself, from the founding of the Republic to the election of Johnson in 1948.

By 1948, according to Caro, the Senate’s reputation had fallen to the point that the New York Times published an editorial that year openly asking if the Senate was still necessary.

It was a fair question that has been asked many times since and continues to be asked. There are those that object to the idea that a single elected official from a sparsely populated state like Wyoming has a much power as his or her colleague from California to potentially block a piece of legislation with overwhelming support in the House of Representatives. Another very compelling argument suggests that the gridlock created by having to shepherd all legislation through two different bodies has yielded more and more power the Executive Branch, simply in the name of “getting things done.” In other words, even though the Legislative Branch was meant to be a check on the power of the President, in reality, the two houses of Congress have proved to be a more effective check on each other than on the Chief Executive.

There is also the simple fact that most modern democracies soldier on quite well with a unicameral (single house) legislature or parliament.

For all the rhetorical rationalization by the founders to justify the existence of the Senate, framing it as a set of “cooler heads” to restrain the passions of the “people’s house,” the truth is that our bicameral legislature does not exist because the framers of the Constitution thought this was the best, most perfect form of a representative government.

The Constitution Convention of 1787 was divided between two almost irreconcilable camps when it came to what form the legislature would take. More populous states like Virginia favored representation based on the population of the states, basically the House of Representatives as we know it. The less populous states saw no reason to change the way things had worked under the Articles of Confederation, where each state had an equal vote in the Confederation Congress.

Therefore, the Senate and our bicameral legislature were created to appease the faction clinging to a system that had already failed badly enough to require a constitutional convention to replace it.

The large state/small state divide that used to be a significant chasm in this country is far less important. The United States has gone from being plural to single, from an “are” to an “is,” one nation, indivisible. The compromise that created the Senate served a country that hasn’t existed since the Civil War.

I’m sure that thinly populated states like Wyoming and Rhode Island would not be thrilled to lose the disproportionate power they enjoy in the Senate, but it’s a sacrifice we, the people of the United States, must ask of them in the name of greater democracy and more representative government.

An alternative to abolishing the Senate could be to scale back its role in passing legislation, making it more like the House of Lords in Great Britain. This version of the Senate would retain its customary “advise and consent” role in Presidential appointments and would still serve as the “jury” in any impeachment proceedings against the President.

The Senate would have the power to block bills that pass the House of Representatives, but only with some sort of super-majority. The House would be able to pass the bill over the Senate’s objection with its own super-majority.

At this exact moment, however, with the House of Representative in a state of perpetual gerrymandering, abolishing or reducing the role the Senate would be foolhardy. So long as the House fails to accurately represent the people, having a significant Republican majority despite the Democrats receiving the greater number of votes in the last couple of Congressional elections. Fixing the people’s house would have to be a prerequisite to putting the “world’s greatest deliberative body” out to pasture.

2 Replies to “The Senate: The Vestigal House?”

    1. Very true, which is why I indicated that radical reform of the House, the whole legislature really, is necessary before we can think of this.

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