Our Dumb Senate

OUR DUMB SENATE…. To echo dday and Ezra Klein, I tend to think that the problems with the Senate described in Chait’s new TNR article are structural. That is, the problem with the Senate is the Senate itself rather than the individual Senators.

The fact that the Senate kills and waters down legislation is no accident — it’s the whole point. Legislative failure is written into the DNA of our constitutional system. It’s a great system for blocking ambitious legislative changes, but it’s a horrible one for enacting major national reform. Hell, African-Americans in the South couldn’t vote 100 years after the Civil War — or even publicly eat with whites — largely because of the Senate. As Sanford Levinson’s most excellent book illustrates, our Constitution simply has a lot of very dumb provisions. The Senate is one of them.

Anyway, as dday noted, this is a structural problem that requires a structural solution. The more appropriate solutions — e.g., getting rid of 2 Senators per state; adopting a more parliamentary system — aren’t going to happen. We could, however, take more ambitious steps to reforming the Senate even while accepting some of its more permanent flaws. It’s at least conceivable, for instance, that we could “constitutionalize” internal Senate procedure to make the body more legitimate — e.g., limit the filibuster; eliminate “holds”; curtail the power of committee chairs.

I realize none of this will happen soon. And who knows — maybe Obama’s ambitious agenda will be wildly successful, thus rehabilitating the Senate. But Senate reform should be added to the longer-term progressive agenda. Indeed, the other big-ticket items on that agenda — things like health care reform and cap-and-trade — might not be possible without it. I guess we’re about to find out.