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What is the point on the Senate?



“I made a case last night to about ten freshman senators, you know, you want to turn this into a unicameral body? What’s the point of having a Senate? If the vote margins are the same as in the House, you might as well close the doors,” Dodd told reporters in the Capitol.

It's worth reminding people of what, exactly, the point of having a Senate was:

Hallowed as it is, the Senate is as much a product of bare-knuckled, self-interested politics as last week's fight over military earmarks. In Philadelphia in 1787, the smaller states favored the New Jersey Plan -- one chamber with equal representation per state -- while James Madison argued for two chambers, both apportioned by population, which would benefit his Virginia.

The delegates finally settled on the Connecticut Compromise, or the Great Compromise. Seats in the lower chamber would be apportioned by population (with some residents counting more than others, of course) while seats in the upper chamber would be awarded two per state. The idea was to safeguard states' rights at a time when the former colonies were still trying to get used to this new country of theirs. But the big/small divide was nothing like what we have today. Virginia, the biggest of the original 13 states, had 538,000 people in 1780, or 12 times as many people as the smallest state, Delaware.

And that Senate didn't have the filibuster:

In 1805, Aaron Burr has just killed Alexander Hamilton. He comes back to the Senate and gives his farewell address. Burr basically says that you are a great body. You are conscientious and wise, you do not give in to the whims of passion. But your rules are a mess. And he goes through the rulebook pointing out duplicates and things that are unclear.

Among his suggestions was to drop the previous question motion. And they pretty much just take Burr's advice. And once it's gone, it takes some time for leaders to realize that they can't cut off debate anymore. But the striking part to me was that we say the Senate developed the filibuster to protect minorities and the right to debate. That's hogwash! It's a mistake. Believe me, I would've loved to find the smoking gun where the Senate decides to create a deliberative body. But it takes years before anyone figures out that the filibuster has just been created.

The question we need to be asking is, "What is the point of a Senate governed by the exact rules we're looking at today, and does that make more or less sense than a Senate governed by some other set of rules?"

Photo credit: Melina Mara/The Washington Post.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 5, 2010; 2:10 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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Your campaign against the Senate is so obnoxious. Here is an institution that has lasted the test of time. It has rules that require moderation from both extremes on our political spectrum.

We are likly to have an election in a few weeks that is going to move the respective vote counts between the two parties fairly close to 50/50. There needs to be some working together among the parties and that is what Senate rules require. The parties working together is what Americans always claim they want and it is precisely what this president promised in his 2008 campaign.

Posted by: lancediverson | August 5, 2010 2:19 PM | Report abuse

Aaron Burr, history's greatest monster.

Posted by: jlk7e | August 5, 2010 2:37 PM | Report abuse

The good news is that, until the next Revolution, the Senate will have an equal number of representatives per state. The better news is that Amendment, ratified by the least populated 38 states, can change the House at any time.

End result: there isn't really a case where huge majorities in only a handful of left-leaning states can overrule the others. Or is there?

Posted by: rmgregory | August 5, 2010 2:38 PM | Report abuse

@ld: It has rules that require moderation from both extremes on our political spectrum.

What are the examples of the republican caucus acting with any moderation? They wouldn't even support their own proposals for HCR from a few years ago.

What major policy initiatives have the republican caucus compromised on?

Posted by: srw3 | August 5, 2010 2:50 PM | Report abuse

@rmgregory : don't forget the 2/3 vote of each house....Since Repubs hold majorities in most of the small states, I would be more worried about repub tinkering with the constitution.

Posted by: srw3 | August 5, 2010 2:53 PM | Report abuse

The protection of slavery via a series of minority checks on majority rule was also part of the drafting of the Constitution or were quickly seized on and kept in place as the slave South realized it was in the minority. The Senate's equality by state rule is one holdover, the Electoral College is another, as are some aspects of federal tax policy.

After the Civil War even bigger constraints imposed by the slaveholders were done away with, like denying citizenship to those born in the U.S. (i.e. African Americans). The Republican party seems determined to club itself to death with irony, see E. J. Dionne's column on the 14th amendment.

Posted by: undisclosedangler | August 5, 2010 2:57 PM | Report abuse

I have lost all respect for this man's intelligence. First he gives us a financial reform bill that somehow manages to not adress the main cause of the crisis i.e. overleveraged financial institutions. Second, he defends an institution that has clearly stopped working i.e. no one in their right mind would ever create a legislative body that would require 3/5ths of the votes to pass anything.

Posted by: jcmontealegre | August 5, 2010 2:57 PM | Report abuse

"The question we need to be asking is, "What is the point of a Senate governed by the exact rules we're looking at today, and does that make more or less sense than a Senate governed by some other set of rules?""

Since the small state bias gives disproportionate power to smaller states even without the filibuster then the point of the Senate governed by the exact rules we're looking at today is to give that specific minority the ability to shape all legislation (as well as the rules that enable that minority rule) to it's own interests IF one party successfully leverages that bias politically.

Is there any evidence that the small state bias currently serves to protect states rights above all? If not then shouldn't the rules serve to counter that bias for a specific minority interest? Can you imagine any scenario where that is possible?

I see only two possibilities. Democrats politically neutering the Republican race-baiting of rural and suburban whites. And the eventual demographic shift of a more diverse rural population.

Posted by: BobFred | August 5, 2010 3:11 PM | Report abuse

The Senate actually worked during much of the post-WWII period; senators would routinely vote for cloture on bills that they would oppose. That is the comity that David Broder misses so much (he just can't figure that out). Now the GOP has realized that there is no advantage in voting for cloture on a measure that you oppose. Thus the rules adopted earlier don't work in this environment.

The solution is simple. Change the rules so that the Senate can conduct the people's business. 1)Place a time limit on the various holds that individual senators can place on Senate actions. 2)Keep the 60 vote requirement for cloture but turn things around such that there must always be 40 votes in favor of continuing debate after 12 hours. The minority can still be heard, debate is not squelched. But the responsibility is on the minority to keep their obstructionist block together. Failure to maintain a quorum of at least 41 senators or failure to muster 40 votes in favor of continuing debate ends debate and adjourns the Senate for the day. If you want to obstruct the people's business you are going to need to have some skin in the game.

There is value to a single senator having the ability to stop something so that the electorate can examine it or for a minority to make its voice heard. That isn't what the GOP is using these mechanisms for now. The GOP now uses them as a stalling tactic to run the clock out on presidential administrations. That's all well and good when they are in the majority but they aren't. Elections have consequences. The GOP will change things if they hold a 55 vote majority and the 45 Dems manage to hold together on an issue.

Posted by: rk64 | August 5, 2010 3:14 PM | Report abuse

the senate is, and has been since it's creation, the bastion states rights

Posted by: jamesoneill | August 5, 2010 3:51 PM | Report abuse

I am so happy Chris Dodd is leaving.

Posted by: pwkennedy | August 5, 2010 4:02 PM | Report abuse

@rk64 has a pretty good suggestion above.

@jamesoneill is right. Who cares? States have a role to play within the constitutional system. Our nation's name is the "United STATES of America" after all. It only makes sense that state representation was planned for the upper house of the Legislative Branch.

@swr3, the moderation comes from the party in power. I am old enough to remember that when the Republicans had power in the early 2000s, Republicans were always complaining about how the Senate made my them compromise on their agenda.

The compromise comes from the party in power, Republicans or Democrats. That is the beauty in the system. Virtue is required from the people in power to moderate their objectives.

Posted by: lancediverson | August 5, 2010 4:14 PM | Report abuse

Anyone who doesn't start the conversation with "this is broken, here's my suggestion for fixing it" for a system which has become a disgrace, is not acting in the best interests of the country.

This is our country Dodd. Ours. The 300 million of us who live here. We're sorry the rules of your club have to change but they do. Honestly, we'd happily ignore you if it weren't for the fact that you are crippling the country.

You want comity? Discuss with your ALL your fellow senators how to preserve minority party rights or how to let an individual's voice be heard. That is constructive. Stonewalling change so individual senators get play God because they hold the 60th vote is not. Stonewalling at this point is putting your love of power above the interests of the country.

I hope the "freshmen" senators you were lecturing realize that your views are hurting the country and granted them exactly as much respect as they deserved.

Posted by: BHeffernan1 | August 5, 2010 4:36 PM | Report abuse

@ld:The compromise comes from the party in power.

No compromise is both sides giving up things.

What you describe is capitulation to a minority, which in fact the dems, much to their base's dismay, did repeatedly.


No public option

Deficit neutral or decreasing

keep private insurance as the main gatekeeper of services

protect drug company profits

This is more conservative than the Baker, Dole, Daschle proposal!


Did these gain any significant support from the republicans? NO!


Make it smaller

make more of it tax cuts

add in the AMT fix

Did this get more than 1 or 2 republican votes? NO!

the list goes on....

Posted by: srw3 | August 5, 2010 4:39 PM | Report abuse

"Here is an institution that has lasted the test of time."

Ah, yes, the "it's old" defense of a broken institution. In 1805, of course, the entire history of the Senate *did* have those rules. It wasn't quite as old, but it had the previous question, among other rules, for 100% of its history, rather than our present lack of the previous question, which has only been around for 96% of Senate history. Surely that's just as valid an argument for why changing it now should be easier than changing it was then. (Just as valid, in this case, means just as stupid, in case that wasn't clear.)

"It's old" is a terrible argument under any circumstance, let alone in describing an institution held prisoner by its own rules such that it won't confirm nominees in a timely manner (even those that end up getting 80% of the vote in the end), can't pass bills favored by a clear majority of its own members, etc. It's telling that nobody says the Senate *committees* are too subject to whim and passion even as none of them have the filibuster. Why should we have to preserve this kind of paralysis in the larger body? What "great deliberation," exactly, are we protecting?

Also, WaPo, can you please enable a limited number of HTML tags for comments? Using asterisks instead of italicizing words feels really stupid.

Posted by: OpieCurious | August 5, 2010 5:49 PM | Report abuse

i wonder if Senator Dodd is pondering if he gets to keep his cushy mortgage and VIP rate now that he's leaving the Senate.

oh Tom Toles, I have a cartoon for you to do!

Posted by: visionbrkr | August 5, 2010 6:19 PM | Report abuse

The filibuster has to be changed. The minority party who ever it is should not rule the majority. This is not little league where everyone gets a trophy. The majority voted for Dems and their ideas but, they can't even get them passed because of 40 idiots from the losing side. I've had enough. Reid can change the rules in January. I'd suggest allowing just 1 week of real filibustering on every bill and then, it's voted on with a simple majority. 60 votes is not in the Constitution but, rule changes at the beginning of every session is. Do it! Otherwise why should we vote for anyone? They'll just water down legislation to try and get votes they'll never get. It's not working. It also rewards Senators by giving just one, the power to block legislation. You think I'm voting when that's at the end of each bill? Hell No!

Posted by: roxsteady | August 5, 2010 7:55 PM | Report abuse

The Founders hated "super-majorities." This what Hamilton had to say about them in Federalist 22: "To give a minority a negative upon the majority (which is always the case where more than a majority is requisite to a decision), is, in its tendency, to subject the sense of the greater number to that of the lesser. Congress, from the nonattendance of a few States, have been frequently in the situation of a Polish diet, where a single veto has been sufficient to put a stop to all their movements. A sixtieth part of the Union, which is about the proportion of Delaware and Rhode Island, has several times been able to oppose an entire bar to its operations. This is one of those refinements which, in practice, has an effect the reverse of what is expected from it in theory. The necessity of unanimity in public bodies, or of something approaching towards it, has been founded upon a supposition that it would contribute to security. But its real operation is to embarrass the administration, to destroy the energy of the government, and to substitute the pleasure, caprice, or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent, or corrupt junto, to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority. In those emergencies of a nation, in which the goodness or badness, the weakness or strength of its government, is of the greatest importance, there is commonly a necessity for action. The public business must, in some way or other, go forward. If a pertinacious minority can control the opinion of a majority, respecting the best mode of conducting it, the majority, in order that something may be done, must conform to the views of the minority; and thus the sense of the smaller number will overrule that of the greater, and give a tone to the national proceedings. Hence, tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good. And yet, in such a system, it is even happy when such compromises can take place: for upon some occasions things will not admit of accommodation; and then the measures of government must be injuriously suspended, or fatally defeated. It is often, by the impracticability of obtaining the concurrence of the necessary number of votes, kept in a state of inaction. Its situation must always savor of weakness, sometimes border upon anarchy." Enuff said

Posted by: bfiedleri | August 6, 2010 6:29 PM | Report abuse

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