The 116th Senate has stumbled right out of the gate. The Senate failed to gain the necessary votes to proceed to a Middle East policy bill, with Democrats maintaining that the Senate should not proceed to anything except a bill to reopen the federal government. For its part, the Senate Republicans are refusing to take up a House-passed bill to reopen the government unless it has the endorsement of President Trump.
More partisanship. More gridlock.
But this is hardly the first sign of trouble for the Senate. It’s yet another impasse that further reveals the brokenness of the upper chamber. Members from both sides of the aisle have witnessed the decline and called for improvements to what was once called the world’s greatest deliberative body. As the 115th Congress closed last month, outgoing senators gave their customary farewell addresses on the Senate floor. Two of the most notable speeches came from Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO).
Sen. Hatch’s remarks took light to what he called an “unsettling truth” that “the committee process lies in shambles,” “regular order is a relic of the past,” and “compromise — once the guiding credo of [the Senate] — is now synonymous with surrender.” For a senator who retired from the institution after being first elected to the body in 1977, it is a stunning reflection. If this appraisal of the Senate isn’t damning enough, Sen. McCaskill’s comments only expand on Sen. Hatch’s criticism.
Sen. McCaskill started her criticism by revealing that while the Senate voted on 306 amendments in 2007, the upper chamber voted on 36 amendments in 2018. She further observed that “a few people are writing the legislation, a few people are making the decisions.”
While senators criticizing the state of their institution is nothing new, the most striking aspect of both senators’ addresses was where blame was placed. Instead of relying on lectures about how they are hamstrung by nebulous Senate rules or making excuses for why the executive branch or the courts are to blame, Sens. Hatch and McCaskill made clear that senators must take it upon themselves to fix the Senate. Though a bit ironic given the fact that both senators were on their way out, their diagnosis is refreshing and overdue.
In order to make sense of all of this, it is worth reminding what makes the Senate distinct from the House and, contra former Congressman John Dingell, indispensable to our political system.
In a famous exchange between George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Washington was said to have explained the dynamic between the two houses as hot tea being poured into a cooling saucer. The Senate, in Washington’s telling, was meant to “cool” legislation passed by the House similar to the way a saucer cools hot tea. In this metaphor, “cooling” means taking more time to consider, debate, and amend legislation that was swiftly passed by the majoritarian body of the House.
This contrast is the reason senators serve longer terms and are not elected en masse as the House is. Without the Senate’s role as slower, more deliberative institution than the House, legislation would be passed by simple majorities on a whim. There would be no time for thoughtful consideration of the effect of a piece of legislation and no room for members of Congress to articulate their constituents’ concerns. The fact that this is a critical area where the Senate is lacking shows the necessity of the role it plays.
To make matters worse, the Senate seems to be short on members willing to do what is necessary to reverse course.
In his tribute to late Senator John McCain, Dr. Tom Coburn remembered that “while most politicians rationalized running away from controversy and difficult issues that could jeopardize their political careers, John did the opposite.” Indeed, Sen. McCain was never one to worry about what exercising his power as a member of the Senate would mean about poll numbers or partisan bickering.
Senators are supposed to be clamoring for conflict because, as the Framers understood, conflict is how durable agreements are reached and concerns are effectively addressed. In his book The Death of Deliberation, R Street Institute Senior Fellow James Wallner charges that party leaders strive to limit “conflict and instability inherent in [the Senate] and its larger environment.” What results is an incentive structure that labels senators who decide to buck leadership’s consensus as obstructionists or, in Sen. Hatch’s words, surrendering to the other side.
To be sure, reforming such behavior is often not politically expedient, and it is an issue that is rampant in today’s Senate. Senators now inhabit an environment with a misaligned incentive structure where electoral concerns have an outsized role in decision making. Congressman Mike Gallagher’s article on how to fix Congress, though primarily taking on the troubles of the House, made the pithy observation that “the fundamental problem [of the Senate] seems to be that every member wants to be president.” The humor of Rep. Gallagher’s quip is lost on the fact that it seems to be the reality.
Yes, the Senate is broken. But instead of giving up on the institution as a whole, we should demand senators recommit themselves to salvaging their chamber. To do so, they will have to remember Washington’s words to Jefferson and take it upon themselves to return to more freewheeling and deliberative process that has been missing for far too long.