Reforming the Senate

There has been a lot of talk about changing the US Senate recently. Kyle likes the idea of increasing the size of the Senate, and also points to this idea, which calls for seating state governors rather than senators in a council type system. Needless to say, there are as many ideas for reform as their are senators. But, one reform is relatively simple and would make a dramatic difference in how the body functions.

Before getting there, we should discuss just what the problem is with the Senate, as currently comprised. It is anti-democratic, meaning that small states are on equal footing with larger states. Of course, there is a reason for this- we live in a federal system. If the Senate was apportioned by population, as congressional districts are, small states would have no protection from their larger counterparts. A tyranny of the majority.

It is an open question whether or not we should still worry about such a tyranny, especially as the states have become more diverse demographically as well as industrially. Though not theoretically impossible, it is difficult to imagine a policy, or set of policies, that would restrict or penalize one or more states for the benefit of their larger brethren. Still, I am not sold on the idea that the Senate needs to be larger or smaller. I hesitate to tinker with such a core tenet of our founding document.

There is, however, a limit we ought to place on minority power in the Senate. That being elimination of the filibuster. As we have already seen, the minority (by whatever categorization, be it ideological/party or geographic) holds an outsized level of power in the chamber. The filibuster only exacerbates the body’s anti-democratic bent. It enables a small group of Senators to not only reject legislation, but prevent it from even coming to a vote.

What results is a tyranny of the minority. No matter that a majority of Senators and a majority of the country may desire a specific piece of legislation, a minority has the power to block the will of the majority. This is simply unacceptable.

And it would be a relatively easy change to make. It requires no constitutional amendment, no legislation. It takes a mere changing of the rules by the chamber itself. Of course, such a change would vice virulent opposition from the party out of power, but also from some members of the majority party. The filibuster is a long-standing facet of the US Senate and today’s majority could be tomorrow’s minority. And, let’s be honest, how many elected officials willingly cede any of their power?

But it is clear that eliminating the filibuster would produce a much more progressive (structurally, not ideologically) chamber. It would also force senators to commit to an actual vote on the merits of a bill, rather than hiding behind arcane procedural votes. In short, it would make the body more representative and more responsive to voters. It’s well past time to end the filibuster.

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6 thoughts on “Reforming the Senate

  1. What troubles me about the filibuster as anti-democratic talk is that it more often than not sidesteps the issue of why it actually is a problem that the Senate isn’t more democratic (or more accurately, more majoritarian).

    In it’s original design, the Senate was meant to slow things down and it’s hard not to see the problems we’re left with as a result. However, I think it’s less clear that problems won’t be worse without it.

    I’m wary of (but not fully opposed to)making it easier to pass sweeping change in a nation of 300 million people, won’t that make us less stable rather than more?

    My only actual critique (as opposed to vague concern) is that eliminating the filibuster would strengthen the power of the parties and make adherence to the party line far more critical in terms of legislator advancement. I think this would make the Senate less responsive to voters (esp w/6 year terms) because there would be fewer disincentives for the parties to punish disloyalty by changing committee assignments or seniority.

  2. I think that even in a Senate without the filibuster, you’d see a more conservative chamber than the House. Conservative both in the sense of its institutional culture and its ideology. Of course, that’s based on an assumption about the ideology of rural state senators, which might obtain now but not in the future.

    I’m reluctant to place too much emphasis on stability as a normative value. The obvious question becomes- would we prefer a negative state stability to a sweeping change that might be beneficial. I’m exaggerating for effect, not to create an easy straw man to knock over.

    I wonder if you could flesh out your thought about how eliminating the filibuster would empower parties. Aside from how the Democratic leadership has coddled the megalomaniac from CT, I see fairly strong party discipline.

    • Yeah, the short version, is based on something we see in California’s legislature. That bills brought to the floor (like the Senate) have an exceptionally high pass rate because all the wrangling is done intra-caucus.

      What that means, however, is the party controls what bills make it to the floor and use the threat of scuttling legislation to enforce party line votes. It’s great for party unity but not so good for anything else really.

      As a comparison to the Senate, the filibuster dampens the resolve of parties to severely punish members of the caucus because the political costs of burning a bridge are really high in that body. With a simple majority vote, 50 Senators and the Vice-President or 51 Senators have much more ability to either ignore or threaten centrist senators. Which, doesn’t have to be bad thing but I happen to think that legislator independence makes them more representative of their constituents.

      If you haven’t read it, check out my guest post at The League, I propose a check on filibuster power that’s close but not quite a complete elimination.

      http://www.ordinary-gentlemen.com/2009/11/eight-steps-towards-a-less-dysfunctional-congress/

      • Oh, now I see what you’re saying. (I may have been dense earlier.) When I worked for the Ways and Means committee in NYS Assembly, it was much as you describe the California experience. The one twist we had, at that time, was a Republican controlled Senate and Executive branch. So both parties were represented at the bargaining table, but within each chamber the minority party had virtually no input into bills.

        Interestingly enough, the current NYS Senate is closely divided (not sure if you followed all the drama there in the past year). They do not have a filibuster and as a result a few Democrats (those who supported the GOP coup) exert an incredible amount of power. It’s one example, but I think it shows that a chamber without a filibuster does not weaken so-called moderates. Again, that could be a product of having such a closely divided chamber.

        That also leads me to wonder if the filibuster is only meaningful when you have a chamber where one party enjoys an advantage of x+ members. Not sure exactly what x equals, maybe 3 or 4.

        At bottom, though, I am not convinced that ending the filibuster will promote greater party discipline. There are already strong incentives to toe the party line- earmarks, chairmanships, etc.

        This will sound incredibly cynical, but I do not believe that our current crop of “centrists” meet the definition of independent. Unless the definition is limited to not supporting party leadership 100% of the time. I think you’d also get quite an argument about whether or not people like Lieberman, Bayh and Lincoln are representing their constituents.

  3. Agreed across the board, I guess what I’m talking about has less to do with the actual voting requirement 3/5 or 1/2 than it does the marginal utility of votes. So in a closely divided chamber, the utility would approach a similar value to that as in a 3/5 system.

    The 3/5 requirement, however, artificially keeps that value high, whether the chamber is closely divided or not.

    In terms of framing, I think the effect is to reduce disincentives to punish members. So, I think, all things being equal, it doesn’t increase incentives to toe the party line. Though, there may not be much of a difference there, I’m not sure.

    You’re totally right on the centrist comment. In this case the definition of supporting party leadership was what I was using but they’re hardly independents.

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