Senate

Seal of A Bunch of Assholes

I used to think that the most ridiculous, least defensible institution in Our Democracy is the Electoral College, which is antiquated, confusing, and anti-democratic. But I’ve come around to the idea that the Senate is a damn sight worse.

Richard Posner (whom I rarely agree with) has a good basic rundown of the reasons why the so-called World’s Greatest Deliberative Body, in a word, sucks. Originally "it was created to be a check on the popularly elected House of Representatives, but also on the President, through its ‘advise and consent’ power"; the six-year term for Senators was meant to "encourage expertise and a greater independence from popular passions than the members of the House of Representatives, elected for only two-year terms, could be expected to have. The Senate would, in short, be an elite, deliberative, and only indirectly democratic body." However,

The change in the character of the Senate since the Constitution of 1787 has been profound. Senators, as a result of a constitutional amendment, are now directly elected, and there are 100 of them. The combination of the amount of time that they have to spend raising money and tending to constituents, and the immensely greater populations of most states now compared to the eighteenth century, and the enormously greater size and complexity of the federal government, have resulted in Senators’ being underspecialized, despite having large staffs. The filibuster (a creature of Senate rule rather than of the Constitution or a statute) creates a requirement of a supermajority to pass legislation to which there is substantial senatorial opposition, and rules or customs of senatorial "courtesy" give individual Senators considerable blocking power, for example power to delay confirmation hearings.

The result is that the Senate is an extremely inefficient institution.

Posner thinks this inefficiency makes it "unclear" why we even need a Senate at all. This is correct, but for myself, a better reason to think about getting rid of the Senate is that is is full of Senators.

With few exceptions, US Senators are assholes. They are as pompous as they are ignorant, which is not surprising, since they are as powerful as they are unaccountable. Once they’re elected it is notoriously hard to vote them out, even in the case of large-scale demographic shifts or astonishingly scandalous behavior. And even if you do get rid of one bad Senator, typically through retirement shortly before death, the replacement is likely to be someone with views congenial to the established party leadership in the Senate, so you don’t get much change. And anyhow what you get is just another Senator, who is going to face immense pressure to start acting like one, namely, like an asshole.

There’s been a lot of giggling about Bobo Brooks’ story of the GOP Senator who felt him up at a dinner party. Granting that this story is true, one of the things it speaks to is the enormous sense of power and entitlement on the part of the groper. This is something that someone does not just if they are absolutely sure they can get away with it, but if they are smugly convinced they are absolutely entitled to do. "All your junk are belong to me." Which is not to say that assholes like this don’t exist elsewhere than the Senate, they obviously do, but it is to say that in the Senate, assholes like this find a wonderfully congenial home.

As for broader issues, while there are any number of reasons why we’re having so much difficulty making progress on issues that are, literally life and death — healthcare, global climate change — one of the most serious roadblocks is the structure of the Senate itself, with its absurd rules and traditions, like the filibuster, which aren’t even constitutional. In a nutshell, take the fact that a total and complete nut, James Inhofe, has more power to impede saving the planet than all the scientists in the world have to save it. And that’s not even hyperbole (well, maybe by a little, but not a lot).

It’s a shite situation. And, of course, there’s nothing anyone can do about it, because while the Senate has wandered far from its original purpose, is becoming even more egregiously anti-democratic (the new 60-vote supermajority "rule"), is deeply unaccountable to the people, and has Joe Lieberman-quality shitheads in it who everyone hates, we’re about as likely to get rid of it as we are to get rid of, I don’t know, the Electoral College.