“World’s Greatest Deliberative Body”? Hardly

The website of the US Senate notes that the Senate has been a forum for free debate and the protection of political minorities. Here, the words has been is a key point.

By its very nature, the Senate, with two Senators from each state, gives more representation to the voters of sparsely populated rural states, clearly a lopsided minority representation, and I say this as a lifelong resident of rural Wisconsin.

This vision of the Senate was bitterly debated by the framers of the Constitution, as only five of the original thirteen states supported a Senate so structured. And this was a time when the population ratio between the largest state and the smallest was 13 to 1. That ratio now stands at 68 to 1 and it is growing wider year by year.

There is no question that the framers intended a majority rule. Alexander Hamilton noted in Federalist 22 that unequal representation went against “the fundamental maxim of republican government, which requires that the sense of the majority should prevail” by allowing minorities to overrule the majority there would be “tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good.”

As history has played out we see, he was correct. Minorities have every right to debate, to deliberate and to make compromises on majority positions, thus the Senate’s designation as the world’s greatest deliberative body. Senators are elected to represent the views of their constituents and, regardless of which party holds the majority, debate and compromise should be the order of the day. The tyranny of the majority must be avoided, as must deliberate obstruction by the minority and when no debate or compromise occurs Democracy looses.

We have always hoped that elected officials would be rational, reasonable people that knew they or their party wouldn’t always hold a majority. They knew theycouldn’t always win, but they could compromise and that eventually, the pendulum would swing and in time, they might hold the majority. Their charge should be to do their best, make their best arguments in the best interests of their constituents and the nation as a whole. That’s how majority rule works, but collegiality has to be part of it, an uncompromising majority may someday be an ineffective minority suffering the revenge of their “friends across the aisle” when the pendulum has swung.

Then there’s the filibuster, the now frequently used tool of the minority which they say, is designed to encourage debate. Yet in recent decades it has become little more than a tool of obstruction. Over and over, legislation, popular with voters, has been thwarted by the use of the filibuster, eliminating real debate and potential compromise when the minority didn’t like particular pieces of legislation, most notably civil rights, voting rights and anti-lynching legislation.

Originally if one wished to filibuster a bill they were required to hold the floor, stalling a vote on legislation by verbal arguments until the majority tired and compromised or moved on to other matters. Filibuster rule modifications during the 1970’s (yes filibuster rules can be changed) in effect, ended the need for a “talking” filibuster. Today a Senator merely needs to register their objection to pending legislation and their intent to filibuster. That’s all it takes to avoid debate and prevent legislation from even being considered for a vote.

No thoughtful debate, no compromise, no vote and the legislation in effect, dies — how far the greatest deliberative body has fallen.

Senator Tom Harkin noted in 2010 the way things used to work “—the leadership of the minority – sometimes Democrats and sometimes Republicans – while working to protect the broad interests of the minority, worked with the majority to make the system work”.

As the framers intended, in the Senate, there should be a full opportunity for debate for both the minority and majority. Using the filibuster as a means to prevent legislation from coming to the floor is at the least cowardly and because it, in spirit, goes against the very idea of our Constitutional Democracy, it is simply wrong.

Jim Goodman is a dairy farmer from Wonewoc, Wisconsin.