Our dysfunctional Senate
By Jonathan Bernstein
The Barack Obama presidency has given political scientists who study political institutions a lot to work with. There's a big story about political parties, with Congress reaching record levels of partisan polarization. There's a story about the capacity of the presidency to deal with contemporary problems, and the continuing story about executive power and constraints. I think most of us would say, however, that the biggest set of questions right now have to do with the current state of the Senate. While the House seems to become more and more of an efficient partisan machine with each Congress, many consider the Senate to be radically dysfunctional. With the rise of the 60-vote Senate, and with even larger supermajorities needed to process fairly routine nominations, it's not surprising that a lot of people -- including quite a few frustrated Democratic Senators -- have been calling for reform. Ezra's regular readers know that he's a supporter of reform, and he's been posting interesting interviews with experts and reform-oriented senators.
And so, with Congress out of town, I'm going to write a few posts about the Senate. I'm going to start, after this introduction, with posts on why Senators embrace supermajorities (beyond those mandated by the Constitution), and what democratic theory tells us about the situation. After that, I intend to assess some of the reform proposals out there, and perhaps float an idea or two of my own.
First things first ... any consideration of the Senate really should begin with a quick point: The basic structure of the Senate isn't very democratic, there's not much we can do about it, and fortunately it doesn't matter very much. There is simply no legitimate justification for Californians and NoDaks to be represented by the same number of senators -- or for North Dakota, South Dakota, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming to have 10 senators to the two that Texas gets. It's worth pointing out that the origins of the type of bicameral Congress we ended up with are in self-interest, not in political theory. The Senate was the price that the people who wanted a strong central government had to pay, nothing more. "State's Rights" is, and has always been, a slogan used by people with a variety of agendas, not a well-thought-out position in republican theory. People, groups, organizations ... they have interests. State governments, as organizations, do have interests, but there's no reason for those governments to have privileges that other groups and organizations (and other governments, such as city or county governments) don't get. I tend to think that states themselves, as apart from their governments or the people and groups within them, don't really have interests. Aside from the apportionment issue, it might be convenient to arrange representation by states, but it isn't something called for by ideas about democracy.
And Article V of the Constitution is very clear; even if one could somehow convince states to weaken themselves through a radical amendment, it isn't allowed. "[N]o State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate." Fortunately, at least in the past century or so, it doesn't seem that massive malapportionment in the Senate has made much of a difference in partisan control of the Senate (the Democratic Vermonts and the Republican Wyomings seem to balance themselves out most of the time) ... there's a bit of a rural/urban bias that some research has found, and it's certainly very possible that biases show up on various particular issues, but overall it hasn't really mattered all that much.
So we're stuck with the Senate. The next step is: Why does the Senate have such screwy rules?
Washington Post Editors
June 1, 2010; 2:38 PM ET
Categories: Senate | Tags: Jonathan Bernstein, Senate dysfunction, dysfunctional Senate
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