Are the traditions of the Senate holding the American people hostage?

Source: United States Senate LinkedIn account, photographer uncredited.

Over the last few years, many of us have questioned the usefulness of the United States Senate. More often than not it appears to be a source of gridlock rather than reasoned deliberation. Senate Republicans worked openly to obstruct everything former President Barack Obama tried to accomplish over his eight years in office.

We watched in horror as Republicans, led by then-Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, brazenly violated our Constitution, refusing to allow hearings for President Obama’s final Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, almost eight months before the 2016 election. These same Senators reversed course and rushed through Justice Ginsberg’s replacement last fall, despite the fact that voting to determine who our next president would be was already underway in many states by the time the confirmation process started.

We’ve spent twelve years or more watching Senate Republicans make a mockery of our constitution, our democracy, and the deliberative body in which they serve. Politics is not a team sport, it is so much more important than that, yet that is exactly how too many of us today, politicians and citizens alike, seem to view it. Any American who would treat our democracy in such a callous manner should have no place serving in our government at any level.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution created a bicameral (two chambers) Congress as a compromise between one group of delegates who believed that because each state should have equal representation, while another held that the legislative branch should more directly represent the people. A bargain was reached that came to be known as the Connecticut Compromise and is the reason why today states like California and Texas, with their huge populations, have only two senators, just like North Dakota and Wyoming, which are far less populous.

Under the Constitution, United States Senators were appointed by the legislatures of their respective states, but that proved problematic. Senators often bribed their way into office and seats often went unfilled because state legislators could not agree on whom to appoint. By the early 20th century many states had begun electing their senators by popular vote, and in 1913 the practice was codified nationwide with the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment.

Today many Americans would like to see the formulation of the U.S. Senate changed to give more populous states greater power in the face of obstruction by less populous states. This may seem reasonable at first glance, but given the purpose of the Senate in a bicameral legislature, as a check against the more volatile and democratic House of Representatives, I believe such a change would be an error.

The framers of our federal constitution were correct to balance the states equally in the Senate while allowing a more direct democracy in the House of Representatives. If anything, the problem with our federal Senate has more to do with the rules and traditions of that body than an imbalance in the design our founders left. The rules and procedures of the United States Senate, as found on its official website, look more like a glorified game of Calvinball, where rules are capricious and can often be changed or circumvented as the majority in power sees fit.

The legislative process on the Senate floor is governed by a set of standing rules, a body of precedents created by rulings of presiding officers or by votes of the Senate, a variety of established and customary practices, and ad hoc arrangements the Senate makes to meet specific parliamentary and political circumstances. A knowledge of the Senate’s formal rules is not sufficient to understand Senate procedure, and Senate practices cannot be understood without knowing the rules to which the practices relate.

What a mess! No wonder so little gets accomplished in that chamber. This is why so many today believe it’s past time to end archaic, undemocratic Senate traditions that hold the legislative process hostage. After all, what is tradition but peer pressure from dead people? Why should we, the living, allow ourselves to be constrained by the dead?

I don’t claim to know how best to move past these problems, but move past them we must. Otherwise, our republic and the representative democracy to which it gave birth are doomed to collapse and will fail in the not too distant future.