Why We Should Abolish the Senate

Photograph Source: John Brighenti – CC BY 2.0

While mainstream media focus on issues related to ‘bipartisanship’ in the United States Senate, and on issues of Senate procedures such as decisions to use or allow use of the filibuster, or supermajority requirements for bill passage or bill consideration, they ignore a more fundamental issue: the deliberate choice to have both a Senate and House of Representatives, rather than a single, more democratically elected body of representatives.

Federalist Paper 62 (generally thought to have been written by James Madison) argued for the need for a Senate in addition to a House of Representatives to prevent Congress from yielding “to the impulse of sudden and violent passions, and to be seduced by factious leaders into intemperate and pernicious resolutions.” The Senate was specifically designed to wield more power that its House counterpart and to prevent (or at a minimum to deter) an ‘excess of democracy’ that (it was, and is, feared) might result if decisions (e.g., legislation, appointments of judges) \ were made solely by a more democratically elected and more representative body. Consequently, the ’Founding Fathers’ specifically gave Senators longer terms (6 years) than Representatives in the House (2 years). The Senate was also assigned a singular range of key responsibilities such as declaring war and approving judges and cabinet members, whereas the House has no such position, and both the House and the Senate are required to approve Federal budgets.

Senators were initially chosen by State legislatures and only in 1913 was the Constitution changed (Amendment 17) to allow for direct election of Senators. The Senate, by virtue of systematizing equal representation for states (hence establishing a federal system) still systematizes a non-equitable system of representation with respect to individuals; the number of Senators is fixed at two per State rather than proportionally reflecting the population size within a state.

Further, under current systems of election campaign financing (a process that is itself a choice), candidates running for the Senate need substantially more money to run a campaign than candidates for the House, inevitably biasing the composition of the Senate toward those with, or backed by, those with greater economic resources. Consequently, the Senate has consisted overwhelmingly of rich, white men, and has functioned potently to, among other things, support (and obstruct and delay the dismantling of) chattel slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and the weakening of unions and organizing efforts.

The notion that the Constitution gave the United States the ‘most perfect form of government’ comprised of three branches and two houses of Congress is often promulgated, and is pervasive in the US educational system, in the mainstream media and in a range of elite supported amplifying institutions. As just one recent example, an Opinion Essay in the NY Times on June 3, 2021 by Ira Shapiro, a former Senate staffer to the late Senator Robert Byrd, critiques the Senate filibuster while at the same time assuming as a given that the “United States urgently needs a functioning Senate, which operates, in the words of former vice president and senator Walter Mondale, as ‘the nation’s mediator’. This type of framing of the Senate’s putative singular importance and critical role in the functioning of American Democracy, its claimed role as ’the greatest deliberative body’, perpetuates the myth that the United States government cannot operate without the Senate. In fact, Mondale’s quote cited in Mr. Shapiro’s piece softens the role of the Senate and so, the use of the word “mediator” in the context of the Senate’s role intentionally obscures the elitist, racist, and sexist historical and current impact inherent in the Senate’s existence.

Criticisms of multiple Senate procedures (such as the filibuster system, in which a single Senator can block the passage of a bill support by more than 50 Senators) are entirely justified; efforts to change these are valuable as intermediate steps and as ways to highlight that procedures used by systems of government, and the structures of governments, even those delineated in a constitution, are actually a social choice. Yet these criticisms, if taken as ends in themselves, tacitly accept the notion that having a Senate is a given, as they at once critique and reinforce a supposed ‘critical presence’ of the Senate in American Democracy.

Yet the Constitution can, and indeed has been, changed. As noted, the process for electing Senators has been changed. Some of the changes to the Constitution which have been implemented are those that have most directly contributed to (the sometimes small, de juro but not always de facto) movements toward greater democracy, abolishing formal chattel slavery, and allowing (but not ensuring) the enfranchisement of women, of Black Americans, and of those 18 years old among others. There are also robust discussions about, and efforts to, abolish the electoral college system which enshrines the federalist system and has allowed the election of United States Presidents who have received fewer votes nationally than other candidates.

It is therefore long past the time to recognize that continuing to have a United States Senate is a choice, and that the decision and choice to continue a form a government which denies power to, and dilutes the power of, its most representative branch (the House) enables a system is which national representation in Congress is not proportional to the population, and in which a small minority, of usually wealthy white male individuals funded by even wealthier white males, can, have, and continues to ensure the preservation of white and economically elite privilege is open to discussion, to struggle, and to potentially change (albeit admittedly not easily).

It is time to recognize that an important progressive goal should be not just to change Senate members, or Senate procedures, or even to add States to the Union to change the balance of probable or actual numbers of Republican and Democratic senators in Congress (all things that are appropriate intermediate steps), but to recognize that having a Senate was a choice made to deter progressive change and to maintain elite privilege. And that continuing to have a Senate at all is a choice, and one that continues to enable the racist, sexist and elitist structure of the United States.

For over two centuries, the system of having two houses of Congress with a more powerful and less democratic and less representative Senate has very effectively helped reinforce structural racism and class-based elitism.

It is time to speak of, and move towards, abolishing the Senate as a branch of government.

David C. Perlman is a physician and researcher, and Ashly E. Jordan is a research epidemiologist. Both have been involved in efforts to bring health care and prevention to oppressed communities. They write from New York City.