Senate Shreds Majority Rule and the Constitution

by Robert S. Becker on January 19, 2010

More Menacing than Climate Shifts, Terrorism, or Rogue Sarah

To judge anything made, advised C. S. Lewis, identify the designers’ full intentions, whether it’s a cathedral or corkscrew. Reality, that which cannot be denied despite attempts to the contrary, depends not on what inventors or partisans claim, but what something actually does, over time, fulfilling or defeating intent. Would literate, brilliant Founders not wince at today’s dysfunctional, extremely partisan U.S. Senate, packed with giants named Inhofe, DeMint, Bunning, Coburn, Burris, Ensign, Vitter, Lieberman or Specter? It’s a specter all right, leaving rational folks to gawk: and these guys defeated someone less deserving? With such moral or mental midgets on board, no wonder our government is going from paralyzed to kaput.

Entitling it the Senate, the Founders evoked latter-day Roman Senates, disregarding despotic origins when senile, seniority-laden senators (every s-word here answers to “senex,” for old man) rubberstamped the king who picked them. Okay, they used their thumbs or shells or crosses to vote and, yes, political toadying was invented before rubber or stamps.

Undeterred, for a new nation in a new world, here was the republican ideal, a counsel of savvy elders free from the partisan fray, whose six-year terms would balance wisely the self-interest of small states with overriding national mandates – the greatest good for the greatest number. Results, alas, fall a tad short, hardly the triumph of caution and reflection over feared mob rule. This year, the Senate displayed such volatile rancor they made the bland House of Representatives look like the fount of wisdom. Today, “deliberation” means extreme pettiness and blocking votes on key appointments (a Senator’s privilege) like the signing statement.

The Senate Loonybin

Remember your history: afraid of the emotional hysteria bound to swamp a House with a two-year tether, the Founders fashioned a Senate immune to crass maneuvering or rampant self-interest. Missed on that one. Not only didn’t was deliberation for the general good totally invisible this season, ugly politics-as-usual packed health reform with pork, as deciding votes came with high price tags. With boring regularity, GOP insolence harkened back to historic disgraces, saying yes to discrimination, no to civil rights, women’s rights, housing rights, voting rights, abortion rights, children’s health and elders’ medical rights. Now invoked weekly, the bloated filibuster fulfills the darker side of this House of Lords, providing a systemic veto of majority rule when lobbyists and corporate titans matter.

Worse still, Senate rules bizarrely empower tiny minorities, as the least progressive, smallest backwaters get their way. And why? In fashioning America, low-populated, anti-minority (slave-owning) states demanded extreme electoral power, thus dominating national politics (and presidencies) over our first “four score and seven years.” Ditto the most egregious Constitutional blackmail, awarding the south 3/5s of a vote for every slave (thus ballooning its House votes). Reactionary, anti-reform voices, then terrified of an anti-slave president, reappear today in the GOP stands firmly horrified against racially-, culturally- and economically-diversity majorities demanding change. Today’s GOP balks just as slaves states did, refusing to join the Union without concessions. Oy.

Paved With Bad Intentions

Inevitably, the Senate became the systemic lynchpin not just for House of Lords elitism but every reactionary force, thus a greater menace to progress and humane government than terrorism, climate, or rogue politicians. In today’s debased Senate, forget philosopher-kings, displaced by crass favoritism and partiality, passions and privilege, ego and seniority, operating somewhere between a zoo and an asylum. Trust ex-Senator Bob Dole: “If you’re hanging around with nothing to do and the zoo is closed, come over to the Senate. You’ll get the same kind of feeling and you won’t have to pay.” Let’s face it: the Senate offsets no angry mobs, sustaining lobbyist-infected, money-driven misrule.

No surprise that for 130 years, Senators weren’t even popularly elected but cherrypicked by state legislatures (until 1913). Glorifying an elite matches the need for a super-majority, thus the filibuster, which until 1975 still took 67 votes to end (now 60). Eugene McCarthy captured the Senate perfectly as “the last primitive society in the world. We still worship the elders of the tribe and honor the territorial imperative.” No wonder it’s produced huge scandals and scams galore, whether direct graft, blackmail, nearly fatal beatings, sexual improprieties, or illegal influence peddling.

Senators At Odds With History

Of course, it’s not just basic structure but dastardly members than indict its historic integrity. Take your pick from modern poseurs, schemers and illiterates, plus unpunished liars like Ensign, Craig (ret.) or Vitter; or retired crooks like Stevens, Coleman or Torricelli. “All I can say” for the Senate, observed Will Rogers, “is that it opens with a prayer and closes with an investigation.” Likewise, Teddy Roosevelt quipped, “When they call the roll in the Senate, the Senators do not know whether to answer ‘Present’ or ‘Not Guilty’.”

And these are not the worst, compared to unredeemed dinosaurs, such as: Joe McCarthy, Strom Thurmond, John Stennis or Jesse Helms. Instead of Senators, we should call these “negators,” dead weight that retarded human advancement. Even rock-solid Republican Everett Dirksen once joked, “When a member of the House moves over to the Senate, he raises the IQ of both bodies.”

Graveyard of the Constitution

If Afghanistan is the 2000 year-old graveyard of empires, our disgraceful Senate is the 200+ year-old graveyard of our democratic Constitution, where fair-minded, humane ideas go to die. It is the most dysfunctional body in a government exploring new thresholds of dysfunctionality every week. The disorder goes beyond stupid, ignorant or corrupt senators, but how long, and at what dire cost, can we tolerate a “mere” Senate rule without any public approval that demonstrably subverts the Constitution. If 41 votes arbitrarily defeats 59 on all-important issues, our vaunted pride in majority rule and freedom, let alone one-person, one vote, is a farce. That makes us an oligarchy, ruled by an elite not open to general recourse, in gross violation of our founding ideals. You’d think this was newsworthy.

If the country were only 50 years old, we’d never have this Senate, a remnant when only (white, rich, male) landowners who feared the populace counted. Today’s broken Senate is the price for having the longest working, large scale republic on the planet, composed by imperfect visionaries born almost 300 years ago. No rational democracy would tolerate a convoluted violation of its Constitution, nor a House of Lords with superiority over the People’s House, a superior barometer of majorities.

If, as the bleak pessimists argue, we are sliding downhill, dragged towards impotence by this utterly lackluster, Byzantine anchor, here is the proof. Forget Afghanistan – or Yemen or Iraq – how about redeeming the Constitution from an entrenched, systemic terrorism by a selfish elite right here on our shores – with a little nation-building of our own?

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