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This is not your Founders' Senate


Any conversation about the United States Senate inevitably ends in the same place: "When the Founders created the Senate," someone will explain, they created it in express agreement with the speaker's preference for the Senate's 2010 rulebook. As everyone knows, there's no principle that this country's revolutionary class loved better or revered more than respect for the status quo.

But if you really want to honor the Founders and return to the original Senate, you'd have start by getting rid of the filibuster. That was a loophole created when Aaron Burr persuaded the Senate to tighten its rulebook and, among other things, delete the "previous question motion." You'd also have to have state legislatures appoint each senator. That might be a good thing, however, as it at least allows you to sidestep the question of whether women and African Americans can vote and serve.

But no one seems to want to do that. They also don't want to go back to the Senate before 1917, when the filibuster was unbreakable, or before 1974, when there was no budget reconciliation process, or before 1975, when breaking a filibuster required 67 votes.

Which is fine. It might be that the Senate of 2010 is the perfect Senate. But it's not the Senate that the Founders created, and it's not a Senate that's been preserved in amber for the past 100 years. It's an institution in a continual state of flux. Going back to the Senate that the Founders envisioned would require a more radical series of reforms than anything currently being contemplated.

Photo credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 9, 2010; 9:22 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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"Any conversation about the United States Senate inevitably ends in the same place: 'When the Founders created the Senate,' someone will explain, they created it in express agreement with the speaker's preference for the Senate's 2010 rulebook"

Really, Ezra? Any? A conversation between you and Matt Yglesias would end up with one of you bring up with the founders created the senate?

I think you're exaggerating for effect.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | August 9, 2010 9:29 AM | Report abuse

What about the "cooling saucer" argument for keeping the Senate? I say abolish the place now that it has become a freezing sink-hole for laissez-faire toadies.

Posted by: ostrogoth | August 9, 2010 9:31 AM | Report abuse

This won't do. This post is fine, but it's out of place. You need to reply to Krugman and acknowledge he is right that Ryan is a flimflammer and his deceits are deliberate and further that you will be very skeptical of any other policy ideas he puts forth.

You were wrong, and it was a serious misjudgment of character and Paul has done you a favour and set you straight. Be big enough to admit the mistake and learn from someone who has a pretty good track record of spotting frauds and charlatans.

This is a key moment Mr. Klein. Rise to it.

Posted by: Scientician | August 9, 2010 9:31 AM | Report abuse

"he is right that Ryan is a flimflammer"
to scientician....

i personally hope that ryan is not called a flimflammer or charlatan.
calling someone names, insulting them, shutting down the dialogue doesnt usually work well in the real world...but i suppose it is great for venting in a comments section though, i guess.

in an interview, a person can express their beliefs, whether they are enlightening, honest, disingenuous, or whatever.
you think by calling him a charlatan or a flimflam man, it is going to result in his having a great epiphany, that his views are all wrong.
in fact, i think by insulting him, you will close down a chance for debate and conversation with one of the few reasonable individuals in the republican party now, and it would be a serious mistake. the more that paul ryan can be persuaded to sincerely engage in a civil discourse, the more possibility is, that his mind can be changed.

good luck, trying to insult and demean someone, and expecting them to be open to changing their mind, to their point of view.

Posted by: jkaren | August 9, 2010 9:59 AM | Report abuse

A couple of interesting points.

First, continually repeating the Aaron Burr story purported as fact by one academic doesn't make the story factual. Scholars at Harvard noted "For many of the proceedings of the early Senate, as in the case of the early House, historians are dependent upon contemporary commentaries and upon private records left by the members. Debates in Congress were often scantily reported, and in the Senate they were secret until 1794. Not until 1873 did there originate the official Congressional Record, reporting verbatim speeches in both Houses." Burr gave his farewell address on March 2, 1805, and new Senate rules were recorded roughly one year later on March 26, 1806.

Second, the Previous question motion itself has existed in some form since Thursday, April 16, 1789 (

Third, since September 6, 1774 (during the First Continental Congress), each state has had equal suffrage and has had the ability to defer a vote on any matter: "[3] Resolved, That no question shall be determined the day, on which it is agitated and debated, if any one of the Colonies desire the determination to be postponed to another day." (see

Finally, the Constitution's entrenched clause "that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate" essentially requires unanimity to change (or abolish) the Senate, preserving the rules put in place at the very beginning of the very first Continental Congress.

Perhaps this IS the Senate that was envisioned!

Posted by: rmgregory | August 9, 2010 10:15 AM | Report abuse

the founding fathers, the founding fathers.....
i dont have the background of rmgregory, in this discussion, but the hallowing of the letter of the law of the founding fathers, expecting that a framework they created, is going to give sufficiency in a world that is so reinvented, we could almost be different life forms, 2010, strikes me as bizarre.
they were microcosmal, by comparison, living on plantations, travelling by horse and wagon in the antibiotics....they were using spinning wheels....making their own soap and candles, with lofty ideals and slaves doing their work.
(much as is out of a california window today, with workers tending gardens in the heat, while others watch in air conditioning, critical of the pruning of the hedges.)
we dont use the same medicinals, transportation, infrastructure...almost nothing is the same.
of course, they needed to bear arms....they were living by candlelight, on the edges of forests.
sometimes, i wonder if the system of government we have, has taken us to this cul-de-sac now....
is it still working?
or is it reaching obsolescence in a completely transformed society? is it durable, relevant and flexible enough to be a framework in this day, and age?
i dont know. i just wonder about it, looking around at the morass we find ourselves in.

Posted by: jkaren | August 9, 2010 11:00 AM | Report abuse

"Any conversation about the United States Senate inevitably ends in the same place: 'When the Founders created the Senate,' someone will explain, they created it in express agreement with the speaker's preference for the Senate's 2010 rulebook."

I concur with other posters who flag this as an exaggeration (or at least an imprecise framing of the issue). I have very frequent conversations about the nature of the Senate, and they never end with the claim that the Founders intended the Senate to operate as it currently does. When someone (who perhaps has qualms about changing the Senate into a strictly majoritarian body) says that the Founders intended the Senate to be more deliberative than the House, it does not necessarily follow that they are saying the Founders intended filibusters or other current supermajoritarian aspects of the Senate. (The Founders pretty clearly did not intend the filibuster, and few people knowledgable about the issue would claim they did.)

And incidentally, one can also agree that the Founders didn't intend/envision the filibuster, but also disagree that the abolishment of the previous question motion created the loophole that is responsible for the filibuster today. The Senate's previous question motion did not have the debate-ending qualities that (due to current House usage) we associate with it today, and while its retention theoretically could have led to its alternative development as a tool for a simple majority to end debate, such an institutional path was not inevitable. The point is that one need not accept the filibuster-as-Burr-induced-accident perspective (and some scholars do not) to believe that the Founders did not intend/expect the Senate of today.

Posted by: april8 | August 9, 2010 11:58 AM | Report abuse

@me: "would end up with one of you bring up with the founders created the senate?"

I wrote this. And yet, I meant "bringing" instead of "bring" and "when" instead of "with"?

It read right when I wrote it, as does this, but who knows what'll I'll notice, should I re-read this later. ;)

Dyslexic typing. Something should be done. To help the children.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | August 9, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse


"good luck, trying to insult and demean someone, and expecting them to be open to changing their mind, to their point of view."

You don't say that you disagree that he is a charlatan, just that we shouldn't call him one because then we won't change his mind. Unless you disagree that he is a liar I don't see how this is a tenable position. Even then it's not tenable, but that's for different reasons as Krugman laid out.

I don't expect to be able to change his mind. I think he has proven he is not arguing in good faith, nor with good intentions and therefore it is counterproductive to even engage him in debate except to the extent it prevents others (who are sincere) from falling for his deceits.

It's a big country and we don't need to convince every Paul Ryan to go along with us to implement a liberal agenda, we just need to make sure people don't listen to the Paul Ryans we have, and the best way to do that is to point out the disingenuous liars and stop treating them as credible actors.

That provides an incentive to any honest Republicans that may exist (something I doubt and I'm not being totally facetious) to come forward.

Treating liars like serious debating partners does the converse, and incents other mendacious actors to use similar tactics, sure in the knowledge that gullible liberals like Klein will take them seriously and waste time deciphering their coded language and pointing out their many errors as if these are sincere mistakes.

Posted by: Scientician | August 9, 2010 12:16 PM | Report abuse

I should amend the above, the reference to no honest Republicans is about the elected and other leaders of the party. I concede obviously that many ordinary Republicans are honest about their beliefs.

They're still wrong and are following a failed ideology (conservativism) but they are sincere.

I just think the Republican party as an institution is so completely sold out lock stock and barrel to the malefactors of great wealth that it is impossible to stay as a leader in the party and remain honest. You either sell out, or get kicked out, or quit.

It's just been taken over by sociopaths so to survive you either are a sociopath or act like one. Bob Inglis appears to be a good example of this. Defeated in a primary for things like accepting the reality of climate change and criticizing Glenn Beck.

I won't get into what's wrong with the Democratic party, it's deeply flawed too, but its problems pale in comparison to the other big party.

Posted by: Scientician | August 9, 2010 12:30 PM | Report abuse

Surprisingly enough, some of the Tea Partiers do want to eliminate the popular election of senators. This is nuts but you can't say they don't want the Founders' senate...

Posted by: wkdewey | August 9, 2010 1:23 PM | Report abuse

scientician said....

"You don't say that you disagree that he is a charlatan, just that we shouldn't call him one because then we won't change his mind. Unless you disagree that he is a liar I don't see how this is a tenable position."

here is why i think it is a tenable position.
please take a moment to hear me out.

i know that our present culture is not about civility, good will, tact or manners.
but that is, in my opinion, becoming a huge problem in our culture.
people say cruel, insulting, inflammatory things at the drop of a hat.
it is not good.
it does harm to our culture, calling people flim flam men and charlatans. if you have a point to make, do it without making personal attacks on other people.
it doesnt help the culture. it doesnt help the debate.
sometimes, reading through comment sections, i think, some of these folks must be really unhinged, to express such outrageous cruelty, namecalling and hurtfulness.
i think that the kind of namecalling, tactlessness, cruelty that people openly, and spuriously express, is hurting all of us.
if you dont agree with paul ryan....fine....but you dont have to call a congressperson a flim flam man.
there is nothing to be gained by doing that.
i believe that there has to be some decency, some protocol in what we say and write to other people.
in a culture, where anything goes, the level of hatefulness, of meanspiritedness becomes a way of life....a way of expressing oneself.
i know that people hold disingenuous positions and do meanspirited things in politics and in personal life....but it doesnt help to lower our standards of dialogue to burning bridges, calling people takes away from the takes away from what children see and hear around them, it inflames passions in a bad way, it hurts other people and makes them close off from discussion, and it creates more ugliness and distemper in our world, that is already a place of great suffering for many in their public and private lives.
all i am saying is,
"just try to practice more kindness and civility....even when you are upset, even when people are acting with policy, make clearer arguments... try to elucidate your point of view better....but you dont have to resort to lowering the bar, by saying mean and insulting things.
honestly, it ends up lowering the bar,
and hurting all of us:-)

have a nice day:-) really.:-)

Posted by: jkaren | August 9, 2010 3:30 PM | Report abuse

To build on jkaren, I think that you can say that Ryan's numbers don't add up, that his actions (including or not including assumptions about present and future taxation, spending, etc. in the document) are incorrect, but one doesn't need to defame the person.

Saying that a statement isn't true is not the same as screaming liar in their virtual face.

Posted by: srw3 | August 9, 2010 4:23 PM | Report abuse

jKaren I appreciate your concern for the quality of the societal debate. However, does lying meet your definition of incivility? Because Ryan is lying to you when he makes claims about the deficit reduction in his roadmap while relying on a deliberately slanted CBO scoring of it. Do you really argue that one must be civil to the point of failing to point out lies when they are told?

No, I value civility, but decency is far more important. Lying to sell a monstrous plan that will hurt millions to benefit thousands is uncivil but truly indecent.

Worse I fear a strategy of decency at all costs only encourages more lying and liars since they pay little price for dishonesty when caught, and can gain much when it works.

Posted by: Scientician | August 9, 2010 5:39 PM | Report abuse

Srw3, I can appreciate jkaren's dedication to civility more than your position which is simply unsupportable.

Ryan's actions are not just "incorrect" they are deeply dishonest and designed to fool people. He got the CBO to only score half of his proposal, and use an absurd assumption for the revenue side, when the tax changes in his plan are substantial. Then he is touting the plan as scored by the CBO (giving it credibility) and bragging about its deficit reducing abilities without informing the audience that the CBO did not actually score that part.

This isn't incidental, nor some side-issue that amounts to a rounding error, it's core to the whole claim he makes.

Yes, it's mathematically possible that this really is a colossal mistake or oversight missed by Ryan and his staff, but this isn't a court of law and we're not going to get him and his staff on the stand about it to make a legal determination of fact. So we must judge what he is about, and I find his ethics wanting. Beyond a reasonable doubt. The error is too serious and core to his claims and he has every motive to misrepresent his plan this way.

It also isn't enough to merely point out his statements are not true. Much of the societal policy debate happens in sound bites on cable news shows or recaps of congressional debate, where competing claims are made. Credibility matters. Viewers and voters need to know they cannot trust this man and to be more skeptical of his claims. In a perfect world we would check the details of every claim, but none of us have time for that, so many claims are taken at face value.

So the integrity of the participants matters, and moreover, our awareness of their integrity (or lack of) matters.

Finally as I said to jkaren, if you won't call out liars you just encourage more lying, since being told politely your egregious lie is "incorrect" is not much of a disincentive to telling whopping lies when they so often work.

Posted by: Scientician | August 9, 2010 5:43 PM | Report abuse

"I appreciate your concern for the quality of the societal debate. However, does lying meet your definition of incivility?"

lying is reprehensible.
lack of character is destroying our government.
but incivility is also a dangerous thing to lose in society.
honesty, character and civility are all important.

there are ways to hold an interview, a conversation without calling someone "a charlatan" or a "flimflam man," to their face.

i think civility matters.
in a public conversation, i think it is better to attack the idea, rather than the person.

i am of the belief that if there was a little more restraint and cooler heads prevailing, and less rage and incendiary dialogue vomiting all over us, (and that is what it feels like these days) we might be better off than we are now.

Posted by: jkaren | August 9, 2010 10:47 PM | Report abuse

i meant "civility is also a dangerous thing to lose in a society.)

(long day:-))

Posted by: jkaren | August 9, 2010 10:50 PM | Report abuse

a Senate made up of adults would be nice. One that is pro-America would be nice as well.

Posted by: VMzJxah | August 9, 2010 11:54 PM | Report abuse

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