Our Enemy, The Senate


Over at his new blog, ex-TPer Ryan Powers has an excellent post reviewing the opening sections of Master of the Senate which recount the United States Senate’s extraordinary history of standing in the way of justice and progress. He quotes Caro:

If, for eighty-seven years, every attempt to enact federal voting rights legislation had been blocked in Congress, most of the more significant of these bills had been blocked in the Senate, for it was in the Senate that the power of what had come to be called the “Southern Bloc”…was the strongest. … Hundreds of pieces of legislation had been proposed–bills to give black Americans equality in education, in employment, in housing, in transportation, in public accommodations, as well as to protect them against being beaten, burned, and mutilated. … Exactly one of these bills had passed–in 1875–and that lone statute had later been declared unconstitutional.

And as Ryan says, this is the appropriate context in which to consider the Senate’s role in health reform:

But all of this is a long way remarking on the fact that the structure of the Senate – with its self-imposed requirement to have 60 votes to move on virtually anything – seems to be giving Senate Republicans and moderate Democrats just enough rope to hang themselves with. Indeed, Senate Republicans and a handful of moderate Democrats seem exceptionally committed to ensuring that history remembers them as it remembers the Southern Bloc of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: as principled defenders of the injustice of the status quo. Today, as the Senate Health Committee reported out what is perhaps the most progressive health care reform plan, the Senate Republicans rushed to hold a press conference denouncing the plan. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a statement, saying, “Americans want us to take the time necessary to make health care less expensive and more accessible, while preserving what they like about our system.” For McConnell, 75 years isn’t quite long enough.

And it’s important to be real about this. Even if Barack Obama manages to sign a universal health care bill, that bill will be a much worse piece of legislation than the legislation he could have signed if the Senate operated on a majority rules principle. That bill, in turn, would be somewhat worse than the bill Obama could have signed if the Senate Democratic caucus could at least bring itself to set greed and egomania aside and agree to vote for cloture no matter what. And that bill, in turn, would be substantially worse than the bill Obama could sign were there no U.S. Senate at all. And the reason—the only reason—that the Senate exists at all is that it was deemed a pragmatically necessary political compromise over 200 years ago.

The dead hand of that compromise has been responsible for enormous human ills over the interim period and will continue to be responsible for such ills even under optimistic scenarios. Consider energy legislation. People will die—a lot of people—as a result of this compromise. And nobody wants to talk about it!

Ryan says Senators who are blocking reform will be blackening their name. And I hope so. But one of the secondary or tertiary problems with the Senate is that there’s a general social and cultural refusal to plainly acknowledge its deeply problematic role. Senators are treated by the press as akin to ennobled dukes and counts rather than petty tyrants. And when progressive members of the House of Representatives manage to acquire Senate seats, the tendency is for them to immediately fall in love with their dysfunctional branch’s perks rather than to arrive on the scene with a determination to reform the system in the interests of justice.