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Abolishing the Senate: Yet Another Horrendously Bad Idea from Anti-Democracy Proponents

I’m loathe to make a habit of using my entries to give lengthy responses to other peoples’ diaries, but this one by Jon Walker was so heinous that I feel it necessary to make the case (again) for why eliminating the Senate (or even the more short-term agenda of getting rid of the filibuster) is a horrendously bad idea. There are three chief reasons why arguments in favor of abolishing the filibuster or the Senate are both dishonest and frighteningly dangerous.

FIRST, the Constitution of the United States grants each chamber of Congress the right to write its own rules so as to be able to effectively carry out its legislative function. Section Five determines that “[e]ach House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behaviour, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member.” In keeping with the function of the Senate, the filibuster is eminently constitutional, being a rule designed so as to allow the Senate to fulfill its role of slowing down legislation for lengthier and more cautious consideration. Those who argue that the filibuster is unconstitutional are being deliberately dishonest, choosing in their moment-only thinking to ignore this fundamental part of the Constitution itself.

SECOND, those who argue that the filibuster, and indeed, the Senate itself, are an impediment to getting work done in Congress refuse to acknowledge (because it undermines their entire argument) that when the Republicans controlled the Senate during nearly the entirety of the first six years of the Bush-Cheney regime, they were able to pass their agenda without a filibuster-proof majority. If the filibuster is really an impediment to getting things done, then by all rights the GOP should never have been able to pass anything, since it never had enough votes in the Senate to overcome a Democrat-led filibuster. Yet it did just that on numerous occasions. The Bush tax cuts for the super-wealthy, for example, were passed via reconciliation, which allowed them to pass with a simple majority vote. In this manner the Republicans were able to get around the threat of a filibuster. It also helped that far too many Democrats were not willing to filibuster bad legislation when they had enough senators to mount one.

Yet obstacles that proved nonexistent when Republicans controlled the Senate are now insurmountable with the Democrats nominally in charge. Harry Reid, ever the accommodationist, long ago abdicated his responsibilities as majority leader in order to coddle the minority. By allowing the Republicans to phone in their filibuster threats, without ever making them show up to actually do it, he has allowed a lie to be promulgated: that the Democrats can’t pass legislation because of a procedural tactic he won’t even force the opposition to use, and which said opposition was able to overcome when it held the majority position even by one senate seat.

This applies equally to political appointments submitted by the executive branch. There was never a point during the first two years of the Obama regime when the executive was unable to use recess appointments in order to get political appointees into positions that needed to be filled. The Shrub did this on several occasions, most notably in appointing John Bolton ambassador to the United Nations. Whereas Bush was willing to go to great lengths to ram his agenda and appointees through Congress using and all too often abusing his executive powers, Obama now abuses the excuse that he cannot use those same powers to overcome filibusters. Yet absolutely nothing changed between the time Bush left office and the time Obama took office that changed those executive powers.

So the filibuster has not been the obstacle to legislative accomplishments Obama and the Democrats claim it is. That proponents of ending democracy, who once argued how bad an idea it was to eliminate the filibuster when the GOP wanted to do it, now embrace the notion wholeheartedly, and based on nothing more than the false rationale of convenience of the moment, is disturbing.

THIRD, the founders were quite wary mob rule, so much so that when the Constitution was drafted, a bicameral legislature was created so as to help guard against the kinds of abuses wherein the slimmest of majorities might impose its will upon the largest of minorities, in violation of the civil liberties of the public. Indeed, Alexander Hamilton wrote in his introduction to The Federalist Papers:

Among the most formidable of the obstacles which the new Constitution will have to encounter may readily be distinguished the obvious interest of a certain class of men in every State to resist all changes which may hazard a diminution of the power, emolument, and consequence of the offices they hold under the State establishments; and the perverted ambition of another class of men, who will either hope to aggrandize themselves by the confusions of their country, or will flatter themselves with fairer prospects of elevation from the subdivision of the empire into several partial confederacies than from its union under one government.

Hamilton was writing about secessionist movements driven by greed and ambition, but in truth, such a description can apply to virtually any political agenda driven by less-than-noble purposes, which that to eliminate the filibuster or even the Senate itself may be labeled. And James Madison wrote of the dangers inherent in allowing any one branch of government too much power when he wrote:

On the slightest view of the British Constitution, we must perceive that the legislative, executive, and judiciary departments are by no means totally separate and distinct from each other. The executive magistrate forms an integral part of the legislative authority. He alone has the prerogative of making treaties with foreign sovereigns, which, when made, have, under certain limitations, the force of legislative acts. All the members of the judiciary department are appointed by him, can be removed by him on the address of the two Houses of Parliament, and form, when he pleases to consult them, one of his constitutional councils. One branch of the legislative department forms also a great constitutional council to the executive chief, as, on another hand, it is the sole depositary of judicial power in cases of impeachment, and is invested with the supreme appellate jurisdiction in all other cases. The judges, again, are so far connected with the legislative department as often to attend and participate in its deliberations, though not admitted to a legislative vote.

If it is destructive to liberty for executive power to come to dominate the legislative and the judicial, how much more destructive is it for unchecked legislative power to be usurped by the slightest of majorities in a proportionately very small governing body such as ours, relative to its population? It was either Hamilton or Madison who wrote:

The third charge against the House of Representatives is, that it will be taken from that class of citizens which will have least sympathy with the mass of the people, and be most likely to aim at an ambitious sacrifice of the many to the aggrandizement of the few.

The author went on to dismiss such concerns, but in Federalist #62, then defended those same concerns in making the case for a senate.

[I]t 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. So far the equality ought to be no less acceptable to the large than to the small States; since they are not less solicitous to guard, by every possible expedient, against an improper consolidation of the States into one simple republic.

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 defense which it involves in favor 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 faculty 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.

So here we see that one of the more generous advantages to having a bicameral legislature is that one house of Congress may serve as a check upon the excesses of the other. In a unicameral legislature, what is there to prevent legislative excesses but the dubious whims of the majority, which by way of its superior numbers would be free to ignore the wishes of the public through the minority party? Once again, Federalist #62:

First. It is a misfortune incident to republican government, though in a less degree than to other governments, that those who administer it may forget their obligations to their constituents, and prove unfaithful to their important trust. In this point of view, a senate, as a second branch of the legislative assembly, distinct from, and dividing the power with, a first, must be in all cases a salutary check on the government. It doubles the security to the people, by requiring the concurrence of two distinct bodies in schemes of usurpation or perfidy, where the ambition or corruption of one would otherwise be sufficient. This is a precaution founded on such clear principles, and now so well understood in the United States, that it would be more than superfluous to enlarge on it. I will barely remark, that as the improbability of sinister combinations will be in proportion to the dissimilarity in the genius of the two bodies, it must be politic to distinguish them from each other by every circumstance which will consist with a due harmony in all proper measures, and with the genuine principles of republican government.

Secondly. 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. Examples on this subject might be cited without number; and from proceedings within the United States, as well as from the history of other nations. But a position that will not be contradicted, need not be proved. 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.

Even Hamilton and Madison recognized the dangers inherent in a unicameral legislature — the heat and desires of the moment can and all too often does lead to legislative acts that usurp the power of the people to the benefit of those whose ambitions are diametrically opposed to the common good. See Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and Spain, and other dictatorships of the 20th Century that sought to destroy democratic government through the use of arguments in favor of political expediency. A more recent argument, however, on the dangers of political expediency was written last October in the Lanka Gazette:

Although the two main parties continued to blame one another they often lured this Federal Party when it suited them politically, conceding to their rabid racial demands thereby strengthening and nurturing the separatist agenda.

Does that seem familiar to you? Granted, the Lanka Gazette op-ed deals with Sri Lanka’s propping up of what the writer calls a terrorist organization, blaming the machinations of the two major political parties in trying to one-up each other for the growth of a radicalized, racist minority. But here we can see parallels in American politics, for aren’t the extreme right-wing policies of the Republican Party and its counterparts in the Democrat Party the greatest source of terroristic acts against the people? Does the far right not pander to the basest fears and prejudices present in humankind in order to deceive and bully the public into acquiescence? And do you truly desire a legislative body dominated by these savages to have unfettered power to ram its plutocratic agenda down the throats of the public? If so, then go join the Republican Party, because you’re in no way progressive — you’re not even remotely liberal.

The bottom line is that for the sake of shortsighted and dubious political convenience, some alleged members of the left are willing to embrace a far right position, and their arguments for doing so are dishonest. Worse, if they get their way, they will have handed the far right yet another victory in its war against America.

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Michael Kwiatkowski

Michael Kwiatkowski