You might know the House of Lords- I mean, the United States Senate, for currently being in recess despite not passing any COVID relief measures since March, for not impeaching the president earlier this year (yes, that really was just February), and for generally refusing to do anything of value. Sure, all of those things are Mitch McConnell’s fault, but it is also because the senate is a backwards, undemocratic dumpster fire. And it should be abolished.
During the creation and ratification of the constitution in the 1780s, the story goes that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington (America’s favorite slaveholders) had breakfast together one morning. After observing his friend pouring coffee into a saucer to cool it, Washington exclaimed, “Even so, we pour our legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it!” Nice zinger there, General. The only problem is that the Senate has recently made a habit of letting the coffee sit in their ‘senatorial saucer’ until it all evaporates, leaving the grounds behind. Additionally, the legislation being poured by the House hardly needs any cooling down these days. Even according to conservatives like Ben Shapiro, there’s only one hot legislator in the entire house, and he just wants her feet pics.
One reason for the lack of production from the Senate, especially lately, is because of the filibuster. In the 1840s and 50s, while the senate began building it’s supposed reputation as a haven of unlimited debate, the filibuster was born as a way for the minority party to block votes from taking place. Also a product of the 1850s was the famous caning of Sen. Charles Sumner on the Senate floor, and that time Sen. Henry Foote pulled a pistol on Sen. Thomas Benton during a brawl. Somehow the occasional outbursts of violence on the Senate floor have aged better than the filibuster. Tell me you wouldn’t watch C-SPAN if there was always a chance of seeing Elizabeth Warren put Tom Cotton in a full-nelson during debate time.
The rules governing the filibuster have changed over the years, but since 1975 it takes 60 votes to stop a filibuster. That also means that 41 senators alone can hold up most legislation with just the threat of a filibuster. In President Obama’s Eulogy for John Lewis earlier this month, he said that if we needed to scrap the filibuster for the sake of passing civil rights legislation that it would be worth doing. Currently held up in the Senate is the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, a bill that would nullify the 2013 Shelby v. Holder case which led to new, discriminatory voting legislation in several states. Unless Democrats can secure a super-majority in the Senate, a near impossibility in 2020, John Lewis’ bill has no chance as long as the filibuster remains.
We’ve discussed one reason why the senate never does anything, but my real case against the Senate rests on how absurdly unrepresentative it is. The 42 Senators from the least populous states (just enough to maintain filibusters) represent just 13% of the American population, while the 4 senators from California and Texas represent 20% of the country. The Senate is, of course, designed to represent states’ interests, but that only made sense back when people identified with their state more than the nation as a whole, and when states had relatively similar populations. In 1790, Virginia, the most populous state, had a population about 13 times that of Delaware, the least populous. Today, if you allow me some loose rounding, Wyoming has about 69 times the representation that California does in the Senate. No matter what Republicans would have you believe, I don’t think even the founders would find that very “nice”.
You might be thinking that I’m only against the Senate because it over-represents predominantly conservative states. And yea, that’s exactly why. But you small-state fiends need not worry, even if we abolished the Senate, many small states would still be massively over-represented in the electoral college, and a few of the smallest states would still be over-represented in the House. At this moment, I only ask that we ditch the most egregiously undemocratic system, the Senate.
The process of abolishing the Senate seems impossible since scrapping it entirely would be nearly impossible. To amend the constitution you would need the 67 votes in the senate itself, two-thirds in the House, and 38 states to vote in favor. It is worth noting the passage of the 17th amendment in 1917, which shows that states may voluntarily give up some power. In that case, it was the State Houses’ power to appoint its Senators, but it’s nevertheless unlikely that smaller states would give up the senate entirely, or that senators would vote themselves out of a job.
We’re not totally out of luck, though. John Dingell, Congress’s longest-serving member, had a proposal worth considering:
What if we totally cucked the Senate?
My apologies, let me rephrase that. What if we establish the House of Representatives as the dominant legislative branch? It would be difficult and would require Democrats and Republicans alike to condemn the Senate, but tradition is king in the Senate and it has been swayed in the past. The Senate, as a national issue, will need more attention, and we will need more focus on pressuring our politicians on the issue, but it could be done. If both parties come to recognize the Senate as undemocratic and unproductive, a new tradition of letting the House take the lead could begin to emerge. Our goal would be a system like Canada’s, where they have two branches of the legislature that are equal on paper, but their Senate only functions to minorly tweak bills, and veto a couple a year.
And man, oh man, wouldn’t you like to be in Canada right about now.