The Republicans Have Broken the Senate

The fact that the White House and president have pursued a Senate-preserving political strategy at the expense of the House of Representatives has been a mainstay of my analysis over the last few months, and it is now common wisdom even among many Republicans.

Two days out from an expected Democratic takeover of the House, Republicans focused on the chamber are profoundly worried that Trump’s obsession with all things immigration will exacerbate their losses…

…Many of them have cringed at Trump’s threats to unilaterally end birthright citizenship, as well as his recent racially-tinged ad suggesting that immigrants are police killers. The president’s drumbeat, they say, is drowning out news any incumbent president would be negligent not to dwell on: that the economy added a quarter-million jobs last quarter, and unemployment is below 4 percent.

“Trump has hijacked the election,” said one senior House Republican aide of Trump’s focus on immigration. “This is not what we expected the final weeks of the election to focus on.”

…Indeed, some House Republicans say privately that they feel abandoned, as if Trump has given up on them — the likely losers — in order to focus on the Senate.

Nakedly racist political messaging works in some places (hopefully, not as well as the White House hopes) and it is politically radioactive in other places. Republican senators are hopeful that it will help them maintain their slim majority.

The disagreement highlights the tug-of-war over strategy that’s been dogging the GOP all year: Should Republicans prioritize turning out Trump backers, or appeal to suburban swing voters? The party has diverged according to the chamber: Senate Republicans seeking to grow their majorities in rural, red states by toppling incumbent Democrats have mostly welcomed Trump’s red-meat approach; House Republicans whose survival hinges on the suburbs have privately griped and tried to change the subject.

I believe that the cynical use of racial demagoguery belongs in the populist category of political campaign strategies, as it’s essentially an appeal to baser emotions like fear, resentment, and hatred rather than anything that might distinguish human beings from lizards. For this reason, I find it particularly depressing to see it being used by senators. A look at James Madison’s rationale for the Senate in the Federalist Papers should demonstrate why I feel this way.

The qualifications proposed for senators, as distinguished from those of representatives, consist in a more advanced age and a longer period of citizenship. . . . The propriety of these distinctions, is explained by the nature of the senatorial trust; which, requiring greater extent of information and stability of character, requires, at the same time, that the senator should have reached a period of life most likely to supply these advantages…

It is equally unnecessary to dilate on the appointment of senators by the state legislatures. . . . It is recommended by the double advantage of favoring a select appointment, and of giving to the state governments such an agency in the formation of the federal government…

The equality of representation in the Senate is another point, which, being evidently the result of compromise between the opposite pretensions of the large and the small States, does not call for much discussion…

In this spirit it may be remarked, that the equal vote allowed to each state, is at once a constitutional recognition of the portion of sovereignty remaining in the individual states, and an instrument for preserving that residuary sovereignty…

Another advantage accruing from this ingredient in the constitution of the senate is, the additional impediment it must prove against improper acts of legislation. No law or resolution can now be passed without the concurrence, first, of a majority of the people, and then, of a majority of the states. It must be acknowledged that this complicated check on legislation may, in some instances, be injurious as well as beneficial; and that the peculiar defence which it involves in favour of the smaller states, would be more rational, if any interests common to them, and distinct from those of the other states, would otherwise be exposed to peculiar danger. But as the larger states will always be able, by their power over the supplies, to defeat unreasonable exertions of this prerogative of the lesser states; and as the facility and excess of law-making seem to be the diseases to which our governments are most liable, it is not impossible that this part of the constitution may be more convenient in practice, than it appears to many in contemplation…

…The necessity of a senate is not less indicated by the propensity of all single and numerous assemblies, to yield to the impulse of sudden and violent passions, and to be seduced by factious leaders into intemperate and pernicious resolutions. . . . All that need be remarked is, that a body which is to correct this infirmity, ought itself to be free from it, and consequently ought to be less numerous. It ought moreover to possess great firmness, and consequently ought to hold its authority by a tenure of considerable duration…

…The mutability in the public councils, arising from a rapid succession of new members, however qualified they may be, points out, in the strongest manner, the necessity of some stable institution in the government…

Over the years, I’ve written several times about my controversial belief that it was a mistake to popularly elect Senators, as it disrupted the original design and destroyed one of the principle reasons the Senate was created. I would rather see the Senate abolished as an anachronistic product of compromise that results in a highly unrepresentative body where Rhode Island and Wyoming have the same amount of power as California and Texas. What we gained in anti-corruption is overrated while the supposed increase in accountability is more than offset by the way that accountability is enforced. Senators as individuals and the Senate as a body were supposed to be shielded from political passions, which is why only a third of the Senate is up for election at any given time, why they have the unique privilege of serving six-year terms, and why state legislatures and not the people directly were supposed to elect them. What we have now is another version of the House, but one that is mostly redundant and which falls far short of what Madison envisioned.

What Madison wanted was something to counter “the propensity of all single and numerous assemblies, to yield to the impulse of sudden and violent passions, and to be seduced by factious leaders into intemperate and pernicious resolutions.” If the Senate accomplishes anything, it should accomplish this, knowing full well that Madison readily acknowledged that “this complicated check on legislation may, in some instances, be injurious as well as beneficial.” If the Senate is even more prone than the House to this kind of behavior, then it is truly failing in its mission and eliminating the best rationale for its existence.

The Republicans have been steadily undermining the Senate as an institution since they gained control of it in the 1994 midterms. At every step, their behavior has led the Senate to behave more like the House. Some of this has been indirect, like changes in campaign finance law and permitting the rise of purely partisan media, which have both put more pressure on senators to fundraise and to make the populist appeals that make fundraising easier to accomplish. Some of it has been institutional, by abusing long-established loopholes in the rules and violating longstanding norms of the body. Mitch McConnell has been the leader in this process at every step, and his obstruction of President Obama’s nominations led to a weakening of the filibuster that, more than anything else, distinguishes the Senate from the House.

So, now we’ve reached the point where the House Republicans would largely like to eschew appeals to the lizard brains of their constituents in favor of talking about more substantive issues like job creation and economic growth while Senate Republicans are cheerleading nonsense populist rhetoric and fear mongering about race and immigration.

Needless to say, this isn’t how our two branches of government were intended to function. The founding fathers were well aware that popularly elected officials are prone to act badly and make poorly designed laws in reaction to the day-to-days controversies that inevitably arise, and they wanted a check on that. Agree with them or not, if we’re going to have a Senate, it ought to do what it was designed to do. When it doesn’t, we get all the downsides of an unrepresentative body without the benefits. That’s the worst of all worlds.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at