Abolish the Senate

The upper chamber has become the world's greatest obstructive body

Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

Thursday morning, it appeared an agreement on President Biden's agenda was at hand. After seven months of slowly and agonizingly amputating many of the most popular items in the proposal — like paid family leave and prescription drug price reform — Biden announced his party would move forward with a $1.75 trillion Build Back Better framework, a package less than half as large as what he originally proposed. For this, he said, "Everybody's on board."

But they're not. In reality, the two key holdouts in the Senate, Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), have yet to commit to voting for the bill despite having demanded all those amputations.

That's the Senate for you. Just two senators (perhaps serving as cover for a handful of others) forced Biden to drastically scale back his ambition and made the Democratic Party look even more like a bunch of numskulls in the pocket of vested interests than it really is — which is saying a lot. The Senate is a broken, failed institution which no longer serves any positive purpose, if it ever did. It is nothing more than a blood clot in the aorta of American politics, and it needs to be cut out before it kills us.

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The most obvious argument against the Senate is that it's a grotesque affront to basic principles of democratic fairness. "One person, one vote" is the intuitive and logical moral foundation for a fair system of political representation. This is why property qualifications for voting were removed in the 19th century. It's why African-Americans got the vote in 1870 and again in 1965. It's why women got the vote in 1920.

But the Senate does not abide by this principle. And there's no reason other than naked self-interest of smaller states for Wyoming residents to have 69 times (not nice!) the representative weight of Californians in the Senate, or for Vermonters to have 45 times the weight of Texans. The Senate's bias doesn't even have any consistency to it — it just depends on the random happenstance of population distribution. Back in 1920, Nevada was the smallest state, with just 77,407 residents, and, in the Senate, its voters had 134 times the weight of voters in then-largest New York.

Historically, the randomness of this bias somewhat counteracted its unfairness. But that's no longer true: Texas notwithstanding, the Senate is blatantly slanted to the right. Its median seat is about seven points more conservative than the national electorate, simply because there are so many low-population states full of rural white people.

Conservatives defend the Senate, ostensibly on principle — but come on, it's rigged in their favor. Probably the most common argument is about federalism and how it supposedly protects people's rights. The Senate and its filibuster are among "the few tools preserving (what's left of) enumerated powers and federalism," writes David Harsanyi at National Review.

But the Senate's gigantic unfairness actually makes it anti-federalist. Rather than preserving local governing authority, the Senate gives tiny states hugely disproportionate influence over national matters. Right now, the Senate is allowing Arizona and West Virginia (with a population of less than 9 million put together) to dictate terms about national tax, welfare, and climate policy to California and New York (population: nearly 60 million combined).

A second argument against the Senate is that it doesn't remotely work the way it was designed. The supposed justification for an upper house (aside from being a bareknuckle political power grab from smaller states when the Constitution was being drafted) was that it would decentralize power and tame majoritarian domination in keeping with the Madisonian logic of checks and balances: "Thwarting the will of the people is precisely what the Senate is there to do," writes Kevin D. Williamson, also at National Review. Senators will want to preserve the power of their institution, so the argument goes, and they will act according to that logic.

This does not remotely happen these days. The Senate does not act as an independent body which can actively contest the power of the House, the president, or the Supreme Court. It does just one thing: obstruction.

The only remaining vestige of the Senate's putative status as the "world's greatest deliberative body" is a handful of deluded chumps like Manchin and Sinema clinging to the extralegal tradition of the filibuster as somehow incentivizing bipartisan compromise. Instead of checks and balances, constant gridlock in Congress means power has flowed inexorably to a hypertrophied president and judicial branch.

Today we have parliamentary-style parties in a constitutional system explicitly designed to prevent parties from forming. Whether a member of Congress is a Democrat or Republican tells you nearly all you need to know about how they will vote; whether they are a representative or senator is almost irrelevant. That means the Senate's only practical effect is adding another point at which oligarch lobbyists can garrote popular policy.

One might object that without a Senate, it would be easier for Republicans, while in power, to do bad things. In 2017, for example, an ObamaCare repeal vote fell short by one Senate vote. And it's true that if you make it easier for a half-decent party to pass semi-sensible policy, you also make it easier for a bad party to pass horrible policy.

But two other things are also true. One, awful policies, like taking health insurance away from millions of people, generally aren't popular. And two, if one believes in democracy, a legitimately elected majority should be allowed to carry out its policy program. The process of democratic collective reason requires it — only then can the citizenry clearly judge the policy results and either punish or reward the incumbents.

Now, of course it's hard to imagine getting rid of the Senate. Entrenched polarization and partisanship mean it's impossible to amend the Constitution anymore. But that just means it's time for creative thinking. For instance, as a pseudonymous writer suggests, a unified party might pass a law in which the Senate disempowered itself by agreeing to automatically pass anything approved by the House. Or we might temporarily turn the city of Washington, D.C. into 100 states, adding 200 new senators to vote the upper chamber into powerlessness. (Something like this is how the House of Lords lost most of its power in Britain many years back.) Or we could convene a constituent assembly to write a new Constitution, which is basically how the current one was created.

These ideas might sound drastic, but they're not all that far from the procedural hardball Republicans have been playing. Nobody had ever tried to hold the national credit rating hostage, effectively stolen a Supreme Court seat, or plotted to steal a presidential election through tendentious legal trickery until Republicans did it without apology.

America is ringed with crises from climate change, to extreme inequality, to our broken health care system, and on and on. The dysfunctional, pointless, grossly unfair Senate is the biggest reason we struggle to do anything about any of them. It's time for the Senate to go.

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