Reform the Senate

The United States Senate is becoming a joke. Don’t believe us? Here’s a joke: “Washington was immobilized by snow on Friday. This is highly unusual. Normally, Washington is immobilized by senators.”

That was Gail Collins of the New York Times. This is Jon Stewart: “Because if this lady [Martha Coakley of Massachusetts] loses, the health-care reform bill that the beloved late senator [Edward Kennedy] considered his legacy will die, and the reason it will die is because if Coakley loses, Democrats will only have then an 18-vote majority in the Senate. Which is more than George W. Bush ever had in the Senate when he did whatever the fuck he wanted.”

Maybe you’d like to see the Daily Show’s John Oliver in his video, “Stop Letting Old People Serve in the Senate”?

When challenged on their antiquated ways, senators incessantly invoke the founders. But it wasn’t the founders who came up with the filibuster or the senatorial “hold.” Those came about after the founding generation had mostly died off.

Nor was it the founders who came up with the imaginary filibuster, which allows a single senator to stop legislation with a mere threat. That began in 1975.

The founders wanted a Senate that was more temperate and deliberate than the House. They did not want a Senate that is unable to function.

On June 26, 1787, during the constitutional convention, James Madison said the purposes of the Senate would be “first, to protect the people against their rulers; second, to protect the people against the transient impressions into which they themselves might be led.”

But today the Senate is no protection against the public frenzies Madison feared. When there is some public passion at play, the Senate caves in fast, as it did with the unfortunate PATRIOT Act.

No, it’s the ordinary business of the Senate that does not get done. The screwy procedure of allowing a threat to filibuster to bring business on an issue to a halt, the notion that a senator can put a “hold” on bills or nominations, is possible only in the unreal world of the Senate.

The House got a health-care bill written and passed with dispatch. The Senate dragged the process on for months. It speaks volumes that Anthem Blue Cross, figuring the heat was off and the Senate would never act, felt free to propose a 39 percent rate hike.

We don’t for a minute think that this is happening because our senator, Harry Reid, is the majority floor leader. But neither has he done anything to reform the Senate, nor does he seem willing to listen to public concern about Senate inertia. In November we noted that there was grassroots sentiment to force senators to actually filibuster if they held up legislation instead of merely threaten to do so. Since then, the number of Google hits for the phrase “make them filibuster” has gone from 117,000 to 214,000.

A few days ago, an Alabama senator put a hold on 70 nominations. “Everything came to whatever you call a screeching halt when the vehicle in question was moving at the speed of the Senate,” Collins wrote. Who allows such behavior? Sen. Reid does.

Caligula reportedly appointed his horse to Roman public office. In all likelihood, it governed better than the U.S. Senate.