Conservative New York Post columnist Rich Lowry wrote a column for the paper this week expressing his dismay at the conclusion that a lot of liberals are coming to following the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation: the Senate is an outdated, broken institution. While the sentiment might be new, however, the problem is old. The Senate has always been dogshit.
Lowry writes that “the U.S. Senate is now looming, together with the Electoral College and the Supreme Court, as an institution of villainy in American life,” and gives a little history lesson on why the Senate is good, actually:
The design of the Senate recognizes the status of the states as real governing entities with their own prerogatives under the Constitution. Like the equally hated Electoral College, the Senate ensures that flyover country isn’t ignored. It reflects the dizzying geographic diversity of a continental nation and promotes national cohesion by giving every corner of it a voice.
The Senate is also meant to be a check on the unbridled public will. Its members are elected in staggered six-year terms and, originally, they were selected by state legislatures, not in a direct vote.
“Originally” is doing quite a bit of work here—the 17th Amendment, which enacted direct elections for senators, was only ratified in 1913.
Furthermore, when the Constitution was written (in part by slaveholders), there was no such thing as “flyover country,” because there was no flying unless you were a bird. But that detail aside, the people who live in Wyoming and Vermont and South Dakota and Delaware, states which all have one at-large member of the House of Representatives, are not “ignored” in the House. If you live in Wyoming, the most sparsely populated state in the country at a little over 579,000 people, you’re more directly represented by your member of Congress than someone in the average House district, which, according to the last Census, had 710,767 people.
What this looks like in practice is that the upper chamber of Congress gives more weight to land than people. This is supposed to be good, because the alternative would be a government elected by “unbridled public will.” That anyone could still see this take as valid at a time where our government is not even remotely trying to fulfill the wants and desires of the public that elected it—gerrymandering in the House certainly doesn’t help, either—is utterly bewildering. Why the fuck do you think everyone is so mad all of the time?
Then there’s the filibuster—which has been weakened after being put in the shredder for executive and judicial appointments, but which Democrats and Republicans alike pay lip-service to because it theoretically allows a single senator to put the brakes on an entire piece of legislation. Strom Thurmond, pictured at the top of this post, did so when he filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1957 for over 24 hours. If the goal is to have a government that’s actually representative of the people, this is not a power that any one person should have.
The fight to save the filibuster also exemplifies another intensely annoying Senate tradition—the emphasis on bipartisanship and civility and not besmirching the name of your good friend the gentleman from Arizona. This somehow became a part of Senate lore over the years despite the fact that a senator was once nearly beaten to death inside its chambers by a congressman, that it once served as the official headquarters of the Red Scare, and that it has contributed a large share of the work towards halting civil rights. The House, for all of its own horrible history, passed a federal anti-lynching bill in 1922, and then again in 1937 and 1940. The Senate killed all of them, and has yet to pass an anti-lynching bill. It is 2018.
The fundamental problems with the Senate (and really, the Constitution itself) don’t just negatively impact Republicans or Democrats depending on what election or decade or era we’re in. Throughout our history, it’s actively made this society less democratic and more susceptible to a tyranny of the minority. In an ideal world, the Senate wouldn’t exist. In the one we have to live with, both the Senate and its defenders at least don’t have to be so goddamn insufferable.