LETTER TO THE EDITOR: The US Senate and our Constitution

Over eight years ago, long before Barack Obama was elected president, I wrote in this newspaper describing my dismay about what had happened to the United States Senate: essentially, my point was that the Senate had been turned upside down into a legislative body where the minority, not the majority, rules. [“Founding Fathers would not recognize Senate,” Letters to the Editor, Feb. 17, 2008]

This had occurred essentially because the Senate Republican Caucus had perverted Senate Rule 22, which had been adopted almost 100 years earlier in order to protect the right of a senator or senators to filibuster against legislation, and thus, extend debate on matters which were deemed to be critical.

But instead of a rule limited to certain extraordinary circumstances, they had now expanded it to apply to virtually all Senate business. This, I argued, had turned the “world’s greatest deliberative body” — which was historically and quite justifiably its nickname — into a totally dysfunctional institution, which, as I put it then, “no longer deliberates; it merely obstructs.”

This appalling situation has, sadly, only gotten worse since I wrote about it in February, 2008; indeed, even though this development was unprecedented, ahistorical and blatantly unconstitutional, it is today seen as normal! I have not recently read or heard ANYONE in politics or the media even question or point out how truly crazy it is that, in one of our two houses of Congress, a vote of 58-42 on a bill (or even an amendment to a bill) — which would be a landslide percentage in an election – means the bill is DEFEATED!

Next year, the Constitution of the United States will be 230 years old. I have no doubt that had the Senate been run this way since 1789, the Constitution would not have lasted nearly that long, as the system would have broken down long ago. There is simply no way that we could have effectively dealt with all the crises and problems of the past two centuries with one of our two houses of Congress so ineffective and impotent.

The Senate has always been very undemocratically apportioned (Delaware, with fewer than a million people, has the same two votes as California, with well over 30 million people); to also turn it into a minority-rule body is nothing less than a travesty, which the writers of the Constitution, if they could come back today, would easily recognize as ridiculous. I challenge anyone to name any other legislative body in the history of the world that required a supermajority to carry out its functions!

As I put it eight years ago: “The Founding Fathers created a bicameral legislature to ensure, among other things, that legislation would be carefully considered and debated before it was passed. To further protect against ill-considered laws, they provided the president with the veto power. But they undoubtedly expected the essential principle of majority rule to prevail within each of the two houses of Congress. The exceptions that are specified in the Constitution — two-thirds majorities to override vetoes, to initiate Constitutional amendments, for Senate ratification of treaties, and for Senate impeachment convictions — are the exceptions that indeed prove the rule.

“The writers of the Constitution were men of both great learning and common sense, and were very familiar with the practical realities of legislative bodies. The notion that they would (1) establish a bicameral Congress, layered with (2) an executive veto, plus (3) a supermajority required in one of the two houses in order to pass a bill in the first place, defies belief. Surely they would not have been so naive to believe that such a system would be workable.”

As we look toward November, with an important choice facing the voters in the presidential election, this should no longer be a partisan issue. Although I believe the Republicans are mainly to blame, the Democrats, now that they are the minority in the Senate, are equally complicit. By refusing to allow the Republican majority to now pass bills and amendments by a majority vote, they also now stand guilty of trashing our constitutional system of government. This is unconscionable. Every senator takes an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States. By accepting this state of affairs, and turning our Constitution on its head, they are violating that oath.

I have great respect, and have voted numerous times for, Sens. Tom Carper and Chris Coons. I call on them and their colleagues now to pledge, no matter who is elected president or which party takes control of the Senate in November, to adopt rules that will return the United States Senate back into the great institution that served the country so well for over 200 years. Their oath to defend the Constitution can be truly met by nothing less, and if they fail to do so, they will be part of the problem, not the solution.

If the Senate is not transformed back to its original design, and with partisan division now greater in this country than at any time since the Civil War, it truly will not matter who is elected president this fall, and it will be clear that all of the talk that we will be hearing about “making America great,” “restoring democracy,” “reaching common ground,” or even how this election can “really make a difference” is, as Joe Biden (who served for 36 years when it really was possible to be a great senator) might say, “malarkey.”

Daniel Pritchett

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