What Is the Purpose of the Senate?

At what point does an observation become a cliché?

When it comes to politics, this matters because it is in those moments when the way in which we think about an issue becomes settled.

That is, the transformation of a telling comment into an uninteresting statement reflects a deeper shift in how we understand the world around us. When what was once considered insightful is treated as banal, the transition from one way of thinking to another is complete.

Consider, for example, how we think about the Senate today. It’s broken. On that, at least, virtually everyone can agree.

Popular frustration with the Senate is nothing new. And calls to change its rules are an evergreen feature of our politics. In a sense, this frustration is something all Americans have in common. It transcends ideology and partisan affiliation.

But underpinning this widespread agreement is a shift in the way Democrats and Republicans understand the Senate’s role in our political system.

Acknowledging the nature of this shift highlights the real source of the Senate’s present dysfunction.

The extent to which both parties agree on the reasons why the Senate doesn’t work today is new. Unlike in the past, both parties see minority obstruction as the reason why they can’t get anything done when they are in the majority. And while they may disagree on who is responsible for the resulting gridlock, they see the solution to the problem as limiting the ability of individual senators to debate and amend legislation and nominations on the Senate floor.

Members ranging from Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Tom Udall, D-N.M., to Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and James Lankford, R-Okla., have proposed reforms to make the Senate more productive by empowering the majority at the expense of the rank-and-file in both parties. That conservatives and liberals alike support strengthening the majority party’s ability to control the legislative process reflects a shift in how they understand the balance between the Senate’s twin imperatives of lawmaking and deliberating.

In the past, efforts to change the rules were largely confined to progressive Democrats like Clinton Anderson, D-N.M., Frank Church, D-Idaho, and Walter Mondale, D-Minn. These members argued that the political system should better reflect the people’s needs and desires, and called for reforms to make the Senate more responsive to the electorate.

While support for these efforts was confined largely to those on the left, they were joined periodically by moderate Republicans like Thruston Morton, R-Ky., and James Pearson, R-Kan.

In general, these members viewed the system as inherently majoritarian because the American people directly choose, and therefore directly influence, members of Congress through the electoral process.

This progressive coalition was opposed by conservative Democrats like James Allen, D-Ala., and the bulk of the Republican Party. These members saw the system as inherently proportional because the people, through the electoral process, elect candidates to represent them in Congress. In their view, the public’s influence on members is indirect in that their representatives, though selected through popular election, freely bargain with one another throughout their time in Congress.

The clash between these two perspectives offered different views of how the policy process should unfold in practice and helped ensure that the Senate remained a deliberative institution in the process.

In the former – or majoritarian – view, the emphasis is on accountability and responsibility; elections have a direct and discernable impact on policy outcomes. According to the latter – or proportional – view, the emphasis is on the representation of multiple points of view, and policy outcomes reflect the shifting nature of legislative coalitions.

But in criticizing the super-majoritarian nature of the Senate’s rules, both parties today signal adherence to the majoritarian view of our political system. This is concerning because members who see the Senate’s role in majoritarian terms have little patience for views that differ from their own.

Almost all sitting senators believe the Senate’s rules should be changed because they frustrate the ability of popular majorities to determine policy outcomes via biennial congressional elections. The Senate’s rules requiring super-majority thresholds to end filibusters are thus illegitimate and deserve to be changed, via the nuclear option if necessary. Moreover, super-majority thresholds undermine the ability of majorities to rule. And, in the eyes of these senators, anything that undermines majority rule should be eliminated.

In contrast, looking at the political system from a proportional perspective underscores the fact that policy choices confronting members of Congress cannot, and should not, be frozen between elections. Rather, the legislative process should facilitate full and open consideration of complex policy decisions, regardless of whether they have majority support at a particular point in time. This, by definition, entails limiting the power of popular majorities by strengthening the ability of minorities to participate in the process.

Popular majorities may be legitimately constrained in a proportional system by creating institutional structures that promote reflection and delay in the policy process. This is the essence of deliberation, both in terms of more debate and in terms of considering more alternatives within the legislative process.

The decline in legislative deliberation inside the Senate in recent years is a direct consequence of the shift from a proportional view to a majoritarian view among its members. When politics ceases to be about the resolution of differences and becomes instead a process whereby predetermined outcomes are implemented, majorities are less willing to tolerate rules and norms that stand in the way of their agendas. And they are more likely to restrict the minority’s ability to participate in the legislative process as a result.

Acknowledging the way in which this new conventional wisdom has altered our understanding of the Senate’s role in American politics highlights the real reason why the institution is so dysfunctional today. Calls to reform the Senate by making it even more majoritarian will only further limit the minority’s ability to participate in the legislative process. Far from ending its dysfunction, doing so will only exacerbate the Senate’s underlying problems.

Reader Discussion

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on February 13, 2018 at 05:33:24 am

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What Is the Purpose of the Senate? | Top 100 Blog Review
on February 13, 2018 at 10:11:03 am

The author raises important concerns, and, within the constraints of a brief blog post, is able to focus on a key issue: the fact that minorities in the Senate in recent years, fearful of losing their voice, have become increasingly insistent in expressing their voice. Increasing the power of the majority by reducing the minority voice will make the minority voices even more insistent on exercising what rights remain to them.

The author did not have the time and space to point to the biggest flaw in the majoritarian argument so far as the Senate is concerned, i.e. the purpose of the Senate. By its very structure, the Senate is not democratic. It is designed to insist that minority concerns are considered and to some degree accommodated. That is why Delaware has the same representation in the Senate as does New York. The House of Representatives was designed to give expression to the momentary will of the majority. The Senate's purpose is to reassure minorities that their interests will not be given short shrift.

When the minority fears that its deeply held interests are endangered, and/or when minority groups--or individuals--in the Senate invoke their protections against the majority for relatively minor purposes, then the Senate becomes dysfunctional. The two feed one another. Minorities anxious about their deeply held interests can become disruptive about even relatively minor things. And minority obstruction over relatively minor matters frustrates and feeds majority impatience with the protections accorded the minority.

That is by and large where we are today. It will take Senators to fix it, returning to a collegial approach by Senators to reinforce the purpose of the Senate to seek to accommodate one another, particularly over deeply held interests and concerns. If they do not, the U.S. Senate is in serious danger of becoming like the Roman Senate in the last days of the Roman Republic, a paralyzed body that sees policymaking shift to others. Senator Robert Byrd almost a generation ago gave a series of floor speeches warning of that very thing. It's all worse now.

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Wayne Abernathy
on February 13, 2018 at 10:30:03 am

Wiki tells me that the R Street Institute is a conservative AND libertarian think tank dedicated to free trade and government that is both limited and effective. They also seem to like immigration, open borders and all things green such as climate change and environmentalism. I guess Reason is their favorite web site.

It appears that R Street's notion of limited government is one that focuses on the narrow and ever changing interests of tiny minorities with money and influence at the expense of everyone else. After all, they see further because they are standing on the shoulders of giants like Hobbes, Locke, Burke, Mill and the rest of the British Whigs who precipitated the American Revolution with their policies that favored the narrow financial and political interests of the share holders of the chartered British trading companies, like the East India Company, of the 18th Century.

As I've argued before, the Senate is where the power is and Wallner agrees. Wallner also agrees that the only anti-majoritarian constitutional structure of the Senate reinforced and amplified by the super anti-majoritian rules of the Senate itself will keep the rabble at bay and secure the future prosperity of our beloved 1%; the rest of the country be damned.

Does Wallner also agree that minority rights must always trump majority rights; at least as long as the minority are the right thinking sort of people?

Of course this is also one of the mechanisms by which elitist Whig governments easily degenerate into tyrannical oligarchies.

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on February 13, 2018 at 15:28:47 pm

Naahhh, folks! Let's just take FH Buckley's suggestion and set us up a "parley-ment" - lots of deliberation presumably to be had there, right!

Wallner misses (or, at best, skirts) the issue with his discussion of majoritarian vs proportional understanding of the Senate. First, it was never intended to be majoritarian and secondly, it was proportional only in the sense that each STATE would have an equal proportion of the voting power. The Senate was to be an assembly of States Diplomats charged with, and responsible for securing the interests of the States as States.

This cacaphonous assemblage of party functionaries is clearly not our ancestors Senate and ought not to be compared with it. It has substituted the oarsman for the helmsman and assumes that vigorous stroking of the oars, in ANY direction, fulfills its purpose and propels it to it's (now unseen) destination. Consequently, it is subsumed, and becomes nothing more than detritus, washed ashore by the overwhelming force of waves and current of the greater body - the Federal Ocean.

How's that for a sailors tale?

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Image of gabe
on February 13, 2018 at 15:58:24 pm

Good points. I would only add, a lot of this undermining of the role of the Senate occurred with the XVIIth Amendment, which made Senators elected by popular vote rather than by the state legislatures. Prior to that, Senators paid a lot closer attention to what the interests of their states were. After that, they were increasingly more interested in expanding the power of the Federal Government.

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Wayne Abernathy
on February 13, 2018 at 21:12:01 pm

Yep - on the effects of the 17th. Our blogging friend EK had some good comments earlier this week tying the 16th A to the decline of the Senate, or at least the change in focus of that body.

I should point out that at the time of the 17th A, 22 (I think?) States had already instituted a form of "direct" election of Senators, due in no small part to the inability / unwillingness of State Legislatures to overcome factional differences. some studies suggest that at times as much as 15% of the Senate seats were unfilled.

Madison recognized faction; however, he may have been unable to perceive the power of "Party" as a factional enterprise.

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Image of gabe
on February 15, 2018 at 10:27:40 am

As one who tries to remain within the constraints of commentary on Law or individual liberty and their linkages. there is some reluctance to get into political commentary.

The problem here is that so much legislation (the Senatorial output) which is "Policy" (Rules of Policy) that is **given** the force of LAW becomes equated with law in jurisprudence and in its effects on individual liberty. that the "conversations" turn to Legislation (Rules of Policy) [together with the modes of their conception and installation] and Liberty.

If we take a broader view, as Walter Lippmann did is his "The Good Society," the issue in our form of republic, may NOT be seen as the "purpose" of the Senate - but, rather, the function of the legislator. Lippmann took this to be "judicial," amongst interests; not representative of interests.

There has come to be wide-spread dissatisfactions with the sense that that those legislative functions have come to be almost entirely of interests - determined by "money" or "popular votes' (transient majorities of transient coalitions). Nevertheless, that dissatisfied electorate matches the attitudes of the Electors of Bristol.

Of course, the argument can be made that with the expanding functions of an Administrative State (requiring constant provisions for operational rules and procedures) no body of 535 individuals of diverse capacities, even with thousands of supporting "staffs," the "priorities can not be "judicial," rather than representative. Which take us back to the flukes of the whale of the functions of government that determine the twists of the senatorial tail setting its course.

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R Richard Schweitzer

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