What’s up with the Senate?

Along with the Electoral College, the US Senate is one of those anti-democratic vestiges of the state-centric zeitgeist that existed at the dawn of the US. But nevermind! I bet you didn’t realize that “the rules of the Senate” (so nonchalantly referred to in recent news) are not only mind-buggingly strange, but actually completely mutable? OK, check out this big, from the 5th Section of Article 1 of a little something called the Constitution:

Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behavior, and, with the Concurrence of two-thirds, expel a Member.

So, like, right now we have the 111th United States Congress, right? Well, when the session began, Senators sort of casually voted in the rules from the previous Congress without much fanfare. But the truth is that they could just as easily voted in any other rules. Say, Robert’s Rules of Order. Or nomic (can’t possibly put enough parenthetic exclamation marks(!) after this, so I won’t try). Just as easily, they can change the rules any time they want. As in, it takes a majority — not a super-majority — of Senators to change the rules. Which is not what you usually hear, right? You hear that it takes a super-majority, 67 votes, to change the rules of the senate, which is part of Rule 22, yadda yadda, which is why you need 60 votes to override a filibuster, which of late has become a virtual-filibuster where Senators just say, “yeah, we’ll filibuster that,” which has become increasingly used over the last couple of years (curses, Republicans!), which means that you need 60 votes to get anything done in our friggin government, which means no healthcare for YOU because of Martha Coakley’s “blah, whatever, finally I get my Senate seat”-attitude lost her the Massachusetts special election and that was the Democrats’ (capital-D, keep up here) 60th seat. Right, that. That Rule 22 can be overturned with just a simple majority, which is to say 51 votes.

Harry Reid could (for-realz could, not theoretical-could) make a motion to throw out the filibuster rule, the 59 remaining Democrats could vote it in, and they could pass your healthcare reform this afternoon.

And they might! But probably not. This, by-the-way/you-see, is what the Republicans were talking about when they talked about the “Nuclear option” back in the 90s when they had a majority (but nearly as big a majority as the Democrats have right now). Reid went ballistic back then at the suggestion of them doing that, so he’d have to eat his words a little bit. But when the Republicans are — have been — in fact promised to use every procedural trick in the Rules to fight health-care reform, a little bit of procedural push-back might be in order. Especially when it allows 40% of the Senators (which, if you do the math, can equal the representation of as little as 12% of the voting public of the US) to block anything they don’t like.

But whatever, they’ll do whatever they want to do. What I’m suggesting is that a little fun reading for the next week or so might be the Rules of the Senate and maybe even the Constitution.

Sources: Going Nuclear, Slate. Explaining The American Filibuster, Fresh Air.

12 thoughts on “What’s up with the Senate?

  1. The reasons the ‘Crats won’t take advantage of their majority and change the rules from 60 to a simple majority are but 2:

    (a) They all understand that power is fleeting, and there will inevitably arrive a time when they will be in the minority, and don’t want to be rendered completely useless (or uselesser), and
    (2) The 60/40 vote empowers each individual Senator exponentially, as we saw when the entire country danced to Ben Nelson’s jig. When a super-majority is required, every member in it gets special attention. In the history of democratic institutions, no elected official has ever voted to diminish his own personal power. Which tells you why anybody ever runs for office.

    As for Harry Reid “eating his words a little bit,” that’s not even a consideration. Professional politicians are accustomed to such inconsistencies: integrity and principles have no place in their lebenswelt and are easily ignored on a daily basis.

  2. yes it probably won’t happen. but we can dream. then again,

    1) there’s a growing drum beat, and
    b) the democrats have held the majority in the senate much more often than the republicans over the last hundred years.

    the real question is, when do we get a senate where each senator at least roughly represents the same number of people. Right now, wyoming = 1 senator per 250,000 people, cali = 1 senator per 18 million. that’s 1:72.

  3. The answer to your “real question” is, We already have that system in place. It’s called the House of Representatives, where population determines representation, divided by state. Hence VT gets 1 Rep, and CA gets 53.

    One of the Founding Fathers’ great compromises was to create the Senate as well as the House, to ensure the big states don’t muscle out the small ones, which is sometimes called “the tyranny of the majority.”

    The real problem isn’t how many or few, but their quality and integrity. Most of them don’t represent anything other than their own best interests, anyway.

  4. lol at the senate democrats even approaching such a thing—they couldn’t even pass a healthcare bill with a public option with 60 senators.

  5. Bull-shit. That is exactly what “the tyranny of the majority” is NOT.

    The “great compromise” that led to the senate made sense when the states were more like nations, and the USA was more like the European Union. The principle that sovereignty lies with the nation was firmly established over a hundred and fifty years ago, and the idea of citizens feeling any ties for their state is laughable.

  6. I call bullshit on your bull-shit. While the expression is ancient, when they were hammering out the Constitution, it was James Madison, fearing the impact of democracy on small states (and possibly minorities), who brought it up in this very context.

    I wish that principle about sovereignty had been established as firmly as you state, but it simply hasn’t, and over the last 25 years a conservative Supreme Couty and judiciary have revived it under the name of (ironically) “Federalism.” And then there’s the 10th Amendment fetishists.

    I suppose you’ve tuned out the clamoring of “States Rights” at the gatherings of conservatives and teabaggers, echoing George Wallace and the segregationists of a prior era. “Firmly established” my freckled bony butt.

  7. Comparing small states to oppressed minorities is just absurd. It was a non-sequitur then, and it’s just flat absurd today.

    What’s more, states rights is actually a separate issue from the Senate elections — it has to do with the balance of power between the federal government and individual states, not between individual states themselves.

    The Senate makes decisions about what happens at the national level, and all Senate elections do is give some idiot Americans disproportionate influence over other idiot Americans. 68 to 1, if you compare the most populous state to the least.

    That’s not a protection against the tyranny of the majority — it’s a very REAL tyranny of the minority (mostly the particular minorities in New England and the Midwest).

  8. My oh my do you not grasp how the American system of government was designed to function…..although you do catch a glimpse of how it functions poorly.

  9. Well, it was “designed” such that blacks counted for 3/5ths of a white person, so I’m sure how it was “designed” should never be questioned, eh?

    The question isn’t whether it’s functioning poorly or well — the question is who’s will it’s representing. And I think that 1 person = 1 vote is a pretty good goal to aspire to.

  10. These are third grade civics questions here.

    You like 1 man 1 vote? So when everybody votes and the majority decides to send Jews, black, gays, and freckled redheads to the gas chamber, we line up the freight cars and call place our order with People’s Gas.

    Or, as I wrote you yesterday, the majority decides that a condition of legal immigration for people of Hispanic descent is strerilization. Not too far fetched — I can hear the Glen Bex of the world floating that over the airwaves to an enthusiastic audience.

    Or majorities in states voting against gay marriage.

    The Senate, for better or worse, was the hedge against these kinds of majority-fueled abuses against minorities, and by minority I mean “interest groups smaller than the majority,” including states with smaller populations. Back then, they feared the power of Virginia, Massachuesettes, New York, and Pennsylvania.

    And yes, questioing design is appropriate, even advisable. I never said otherwise, and never will.

  11. no not “including” states with smaller populations — EXCLUSIVELY states with smaller populations. There’s no reason to think that the Senate is protecting the rights of any other minority then the ones that, through sheer accident, happen to live in smaller states. Pretty lame defense of an anti-democratic institution.

    Not saying it didn’t make sense then, im saying it don’t make sense now.

    The Constitution offers protection against the tyranny of the majority, and so does the Supreme Court. Both are imperfect though, because in the long run both can be defeated by a sufficient majority. Which is why the ultimate protection against ToM is an educated, empowered public that understands the importance of these principles. And I think things like the bullshit currently ensuing in the Senate tends to undermine public confidence in our basic democratic principles, and so ultimately works against protecting the various minorities from ToM.

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