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.


Capitol Hill Building in Washington DC

An Impotent Congress

Instead of a deliberative process in which Senate members put forward competing ideas, party leaders stage-manage a rigged debate.