America’s Broken Saucer

By Antonio Caceres, Staff Writer

When John F. Kennedy was a member of the United States Senate, he wrote Profiles in Courage, a book which included the storied careers of eight senators from Daniel Webster of Massachusetts in 1850 to Robert A. Taft of Ohio a hundred years later. These names have long been forgotten along with the supposed majesty of the Senate. What Americans know today as the upper chamber of Congress dominated by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is a shell of its former self. The Senate was meant to be the “cooling saucer” that would temper the heat of legislation produced in the House; nowadays, it is an ineffectual institution more interested in stonewalling progress than guiding it.


The Senate was designed to be an inherently undemocratic body that allocated two seats to every state in the Union regardless of population. As a result of this, a state like Wyoming with only about half a million residents has the same political clout as California, which is nearly 70 times larger. It was not until a constitutional amendment passed in 1913 that Americans could even vote for their senators; before then, senators were chosen by a state’s legislature.


The procedures of the Senate are equally antiquated and anti-majoritarian. The filibuster is an obscure Senate rule that has no basis in the Constitution, that requires 3/5ths of senators to essentially agree to successfully pass a law. It was not used until the middle of the 20th century to kill civil rights legislation and anti-lynching bills. Since then, it has been employed more often by the minority to block a president’s agenda.


When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, he entered office with control of the House and a 58 – 42 majority in the Senate. Yet, because he required 60 votes to pass any meaningful legislation, he could not afford to lose a single vote. This precarious position forced him to scale back his reforms. Senator Joe Lieberman, a centrist, famously refused to vote for the Affordable Care Act if it included a public option in it, essentially ending an effort that would have let even more Americans enjoy affordable healthcare.


A 58 seat majority in the Senate is nearly unimaginable in our current era of partisan politics. Since 2015, Republicans have maintained a small majority in the upper chamber, and because of the Senate’s design, Republicans currently hold a majority despite representing fewer Americans than the Democrats in the minority do. Nonetheless, this has allowed them to exercise undue influence in our government.


To rebalance power, the filibuster must come to an end. James Madison explicitly stated in Federalist Papers #22 and #52 that both houses of Congress should be governed by majority rule. Still, some political scientists have argued that the filibuster fosters compromise between the two parties. This would be true in a political system in which both parties acted in good faith. It is clear that Republicans only care about killing any Democratic proposed legislation regardless of its merits. A Senate with majority rule would force the minority party to work with those in control or risk being excluded from the legislative process altogether.


There are also ways to combat the overrepresentation of white rural states in the Senate. There is already legislation to admit Washington D.C. as the new State of Douglass. The nation’s capital is majority Black and has lacked representation in our upper chamber for too long. The new state, named for the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, would have more citizens than that of Wyoming, Vermont, and many others. Puerto Rico, on the other hand, deserves a right to self-determination through an independent referendum whose result should be respected by both parties.


Long ago in a nation now forgotten, Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, “The Lion,” and John McCain of Arizona, “The Maverick,” would battle it out in the well of the United States Senate. Whether the debate was over health care, foreign policy, or the federal budget, both men could find something to disagree upon. Yet, even after a long day of heated rhetoric, they would find themselves laughing together in the Senate cloakroom. Both friends eventually fell ill to brain cancer, and McCain passed nine years to the day of Kennedy’s death. There are numerous faults in the storied institution that is the United States Senate. The hopeful news is that these failures can be resolved through simple changes if Democrats are willing to push for them. If we are lucky, we will be able to eventually restore the vibrant Senate of Kennedy and McCain.