10 August 2010

'What's the point of having a Senate?'

Christopher Dodd, who'll retire from the U.S. Senate at the end of this year, asked this question rhetorically in order to explain what he thought the point was. The Democrat from Connecticut believes that the upper house is a necessary line of defense against "the tyranny of the majority" and should require more than a majority vote to pass legislation. "If the vote margins are the same as in the House, you might as well close the doors," he recently told reporters.

"I've reached the point where I'd abolish the Senate if I could," writes E.J. Dionne, who interviewed Dodd for his latest column, "It is more profoundly undemocratic than it was when the Founders created it and less genuinely deliberative -- problems compounded by a Republican majority's strategy of delay and obstruction."

I find both these statements problematic. Dealing with Dionne first, no matter how much Republican exploit their rights under the rules to obstruct legislation, the body is absolutely more democratic now than when the Founders created it simply because, since 1913, Senators have been elected directly by all the voters, not by state legislatures. I'm guessing, however, that Dionne means that it's undemocratic to the extent that anything more than a simple majority is required for legislation to advance.

Dodd, on the other hand, argues that supermajorities are a proper protection of minority rights. He fails to appreciate that a simple majority of Senators is already a kind of supermajority because of the two seats apiece guaranteed to all states, including small states who barely have that number of seats in the House of Representatives. The two-seats or all-states-equal rule was designed to protect the small states from being dominated or ignored by the big states, so protection from alleged majority tyranny was built into the system before any rules were written requiring supermajorities for cloture or anything else.

Dionne reports that Dodd "didn't change my attitude toward the world's longest-winded legislative body." He was disarmed, however, by Dodd's "ebullient joy about what democratic politics can accomplish." He notes approvingly Dodd's observation that Democrats have been hurting themselves by complaining about Republican obstruction because it creates the impression that the Democrats haven't accomplished anything, when the opposite is true.

Whether Dionne agrees with Dodd's embrace of partisanship is another matter. "There's nothing wrong with partisanship," the Senator told the columnist, "A little more civility would be a good thing, but it was partisanship that created this place." The problem now, Dodd claims, is the absence of socialization across party lines, in part because everyone's compelled to go out fundraising. "Members don't know each other, and there's very little respect for each other," he laments.

Partisanship created the U.S. Senate? What does Dodd mean by this? Were the advocates of the Constitution partisan because another group opposed it? Were the revolutionaries partisan because other Americans were loyalist? There was no party system when the Senate was created, and while one emerged quickly enough it was not written into Madison and Hamilton's plans beforehand. Dionne attempts to clarify the matter, presumably paraphrasing Dodd when writing, "Partisanship simply reflects the reality of disagreement in a free society." But that can't be right. A free society permits people to disagree about public matters. It doesn't require people to form factions dedicated to perpetual disagreement with each other. If anything, partisanship constrains the right of disagreement in a free society by pressuring most people into buying into conforming their disagreement with any proposal into agreement with other opponents on a range of unrelated issues. Disagreement itself doesn't require the formation of permanent fundraising and electioneering organizations. Politicians require parties as coattails to ride on; disagreement, ideally, is a matter of each person standing on his or her own two feet.

In the end, a still-skeptical Dionne concludes that "Dodd may be too sentimental about the old Senate." But he admires the old Senator as a "happy warrior" and agrees with him that "politics could use a little more joy." That depends on what you're joyful about. Dodd's happiness may be that of the institutional mind, the attitude of the old convict accustomed to the customs of prison who ends up unfit to live as a free man. There's a lot to be unhappy about in both houses of Congress, and I'd rather see more congressmen express their unhappiness. Maybe then their constituents would get the point.

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