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Specter Slams Senate — What Will He Do About It?

Arlen Specter brings some real talk:

Whatever the cause, things have gotten bad enough that Senator Arlen Specter, Democrat of Pennsylvania, said the Senate should be stripped of one of its illustrious institutional claims.

“This body prides itself on being the world’s greatest deliberative body,” Mr. Specter said. “That designation has been destroyed with what has occurred here the past few days.”

The truth of the matter is that the Senate has always been problematic. Like the health care bill, the United States Constitution was the result of pragmatic political compromise. That entailed excepting some truly odious compromises — like the existence of chattel slavery. Less odious, but similar in spirit, was giving in to hardball politics from the likes of Delaware and accepting the principle that there should be a special house of the legislature designed to undermine democratic accountability. A few decades down the road, the Senate emerged as the stronghold of the antebellum “slave power.” Henry Adams wrote early in the 20th century that “The most troublesome task of a reform President is bringing the Senate back to decency.” Soon after, the Senate became the place where anti-lynching bills went to die, then later the place where civil rights legislation went to die.

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At root, the senate is a bad idea poorly implemented. And though I don’t expect the fundamental nature of Senate malaportionment do change, it’d be nice if Senators from underrepresented states like Pennsylvania would at least acknowledge that the whole thing is root-and-branch problematic.

Shorter than that, real legislators don’t just whine, they act to change senate procedure. The two main things are the need to curb filibustering, and to alter caucus rules about committee chairmanships. The Republicans have term limits for their chairmen, which means that after you serve for a certain number of years you need to ask your colleagues to elect you to a new post. That, in turn, means that there’s a constant, systemic incentive for members not to pull lone wolf stunts that are bad for everyone else in the caucus. Those changes would turn the Senate into something more like a regular legislative body, albeit one with a strange electoral base and questionable democratic legitimacy.