Can the SenateFebruary 6th, 2010

The founders of our country made some egregious compromises to get the Constitution ratified–the official adoption of slavery, for one–and not all of the wrongs have been righted over the 220 intervening years. One of their biggest mistakes was the United States Senate. It was meant as a buffer against public opinion, but it turned out to be a check on the public interest.

As originally conceived (and until the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913), the senate consisted of members elected by the legislatures of the several states. With a six-year term and a measure of insulation from the day-to-day affairs of the general public, the senate was meant as a “check and balance” against the other house, which was elected directly by the people every two years. The House of Representatives could be anticipated to turn over suddenly and traumatically with radical shifts in public opinion, but the Senate could be expected to remain largely intact, minimizing the legislative consequences of such changes.

Since no law can be passed without majority support in both houses, individual senators have considerable power to restrain Congressional action, and this was the founders’ explicit reason for establishing such a body. The founders believed that a senate would give the union a certain consistency and stability, and they’ve been proved right. What the founders didn’t anticipate was a network of mass media that would enable self-dealing interests to purchase seats in the US Senate and make it a guarantor of the status quo. That’s what it’s been for most of the 20th Century and all of the 21st, so far.

It’s not often that citizens get to see the deficiencies in their system exposed. The antidemocratic character of the Senate–we have two senators per state, regardless of population–isn’t much of an issue when the president and one or the other house of Congress are of different parties, as has often been the case over the past 50 years or so. The people don’t expect much legislative progress in such conditions. But when the president has a majority in both houses and gridlock continues, voters become restive and suspicious.

Health care–what Obama now calls health insurance reform–is a case in point. It’s pretty clear that most people favor a health care financing mechanism along the lines of Canada’s system, which delivers care to every one more effficiently and for less money per person than Americans now pay in insurance premiums. The House of Representatives voted to create the rudiments of such a system, but too many senators won’t go along. Their seats were purchased for them by high rollers in finance and insurance, and they’re obligated to preserve the status quo, regardless of what the people might want or need.

Democrats claim that Republicans are responsible for the gridlock on health care, but Democrats hold a 60-40 majority and should be able to prevail on any vote. Turns out the Democrats are facilititating the Republicans here, something Democratic senators tend to do whenever the status quo is threatened. There’s a hundred-year-old rule of Senate procedure that requires a 60-vote majority to silence any senator. It’s an antidemocratic rule, but senators of both parties love it because it increases their individual power and attracts money and other emoluments from people with an interest in the status quo. Democrats could repeal the rule with a snap of Harry Reid’s finger, but they choose not to. Senators have absolute power to impede change–a commodity of inestimable value to a corrupt politician–and they’re not about to relinquish it. That’s why the Senate ought to be dissolved.

Fact is that the 17th Amendment has been a bust. Our popularly elected senate has failed us time and time again. The members sell out so cheaply, and many if not most of them are unabashedly answerable to a cabal of rich supporters And so we citizens find ourselves ankle deep in the 21st Century with nothing but 20th Century gear. I recommend a constitutional amendment to disband this dysfunctional institution. One house of Congress is enough. Let it turn over every two years. Let it legislate real change. We’re a mature republic now, and the people have no further need for checks on their power to act in their own interest.