How to reform the US Senate

For those of you who read the New York Times, you would have read that the senators who voted to confirm Kavanaugh represent only 44% of the US population. These senators tend to come from states which are small, rural and disproportionately white. In an era where race and population density play an ever-greater role in determining political preferences, the system, however unintentionally, seems heavily bias in favour of the Republicans. Combined with a hyper-partisan climate, and the results are toxic.

Defenders of the Senate as it is point to the intentions of the Founders. They wanted senators to be wise councillors, uninhibited by tribal bickering and hot-headedness. More importantly, the Constitution was written in the context of a society where state identity was very strong. The most common criticism of the Constitution was that it granted the federal government too much power; anti-federalism was still very strong in country that had been governed under the Articles of Confederation. By ensuring that states were represented as states, power-hungry demagogues who appealed to the whims of the masses would have their ambitions curtailed.

But it goes without saying that America in the early 21st century is a very different place to America in the late 18th century. States, particularly the small Midwestern ones, have a weaker identity, and one which is more cultural than political. The slave-non slave division no longer exists. America’s primary economic division used to be between the industrialised Northeast and the agricultural South. It is now between globalised cities and de-industrialised small towns. Since the New Deal, America has become accustomed to the federal government playing an active role in society; a chamber cannot defend its existence simply as a curb on ‘big government.’ Put simply, the Founders could never have foreseen America’s current political, socioeconomic and demographic nature.

On the other hand, what constitutional conservatives get right is that it would be a mistake for the Senate to become a mere replica of the House of Representatives. Already, the Senate exhibits some of the worst features traditionally associated with the House: ultra-partisanship, a lack of technical expertise and experience, frequent stalemates. The influence of corporate money is even worse in the Senate due to the sheer expense of running an election across a whole state. The existence of the filibuster makes passing all but the budget reconciliation bills an arduous process. If America is to have a second chamber, it ought to be one which contributes wisdom, moderation and a long-term vision. Democrats have proposed a range of reforms to make the Senate more representative: giving bigger states more senators, giving Puerto Rico and DC statehood, campaign finance reforms. But these would only make the Senate a copy of the House- hardly a desirable outcome given the general unpopularity of Congress.

Rather, reforms to the Senate ought to focus on reducing its power. A chamber that is increasingly unrepresentative should not be able to indefinitely veto legislation, particularly pertaining to finance matters like the budget or the debt ceiling. The Senate should transition into being more of a revising chamber, akin to Britain’s House of Lords or Germany’s Bundesrat. Most bills should originate in the House, with the Senate mostly tasked with improving legislation, not changing it entirely. This would have the happy effect of reducing the amount of money poured into Senate campaigns, and thus the amount of time senators have to waste fundraising.

The Senate should also be non-partisan. This already happens in Nebraska’s unicameral legislature. While true non-partisanship will be extremely difficult to achieve, the absence of party whips would allow Senators to vote their conscience, fearing only the views of their constituents. For example, Trump-sceptic conservatives could oppose some of his policies without being labelled a traitor to the Republican Party. This would have the added benefit of replacing party primaries with a single primary to determine who stands in the general election.

America is fortunate to have the Senate. The Founders were right to fear the power-hungry men that were attracted to the House. They wanted a civilised, intelligent platform where the conflicting interests of the states could be resolved amicably. Progressives who favour the abolition of the Senate point to countries like Sweden or New Zealand, which seem to get on perfectly well without one. But those countries have a multi-party political culture, where coalitions and compromises with those from other parties are normal. America, which is dominated by two bitterly opposed parties, needs a non-partisan, experienced and wise second chamber. And while the political salience of state identity has been reduced, it remains a prominent fact of life which requires representation.

One Comment

  1. Excellent post. The Kavanaugh appointment to the Supreme Court was a glaring example of the fact that the Senate, bitterly partisan, is no longer fit for purpose. But where do we find people who truly serve the country, not party, are well informed, do their homework , and, for the sake of the country, are prepared to restrain an out-of-control President of their own party?

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