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4 June 2005
Nuke the Senate

I’d walk a mile for a unicameral

Last week Washington’s talking heads were all a-twitter with delight that the “nuclear option” had been avoided in the U.S. Senate. That a dull parliamentary maneuver could be described as an apocalypse points up the inflated self-importance of that chamber of gasbags and of its acolytes on t.v. In fact, the “nuclear option” referred to a threat by the governing GOP to cut off the possibility of a filibuster — that is, the right of a minority party to shut down decisions by endless irrelevant chatter, or (these days) by the mere threat of such chatter. If the filibuster were to get nuked, it would mean a vote by a simple majority (questionable in a parliamentary sense, but Senate rules are not reviewable by anyone external to the chamber) to overturn the rule requiring a supermajority (60 votes) to shut off debate and allow a floor vote. In particular, the issue was confirmation of some of Bush’s nominees for judgeships. The Democrats allowed a vote on several of them, the GOP didn’t go nuclear, and the pundits cheered. The hallowed tradition of the filibuster had been saved so it can shut down the Senate some other day.

Now, however, the Senate has frozen itself again while the Democrats delay the nomination of the obviously unfit nominee for U.N. ambassador, John Bolton, without pronouncing the F word. (No, I don’t mean Cheney’s favorite F word!) And Bush was mighty peeved about it. Though he managed to convert his anger into his trademark chuckle about something that isn’t funny, for a moment you got a terrifying glimpse of what must be a savage temper in private. No matter. The Bolton nomination is held up along with all the other important Senate business such as keeping a brain-dead woman’s heart beating or guaranteeing full employment to the citizens of China.

I admit that lately it’s good to see a halt to the Senate’s dirty business of soaking the people to hand out goodies to aristocrats with aggressive and conservatively correct lobbyists while impaling the Bill of Rights on a crucifix. But, no matter how much I chortle at seeing little toddler Bush hold his breath till his face turns blue (or, more literally, till his rosacea turns red) over not getting his way, the filibuster should go. Nobody who believes in democracy can celebrate a device used to shut down decision making and prevent majority rule, no matter how odious the party in power might be. In fact, let’s go further. Forget about saving the filibuster; let’s abolish the Senate.

The Senate came into being (1) because this country based its legislature on Britain’s parliament, which still has an upper chamber called the House of Lords, and (2) because the Constitution came about by the union of sovereign states, and the Senate was supposed to represent state interests while the House represented individuals. Originally Senators were appointed by their state governments rather than elected directly. The Founders, suspicious of direct democracy, hoped the Senate would check the will of the majority (again, much as the Lords served to frustrate the will of the Commons). If you believe in a society where Lords (or their equivalent) have a veto, then the Senate is a great idea. By giving each state two senators, the Founders created a body that largely represents swaths of empty land. Wyoming (population 501K) and California (population 35.4M) get the same representation. Those who think this is a great model should consider the similarity to the U.N. General Assembly, in which Equatorial Guinea and China get the same vote. As for the Founders’ love of democracy, remember they also gave us the Electoral College, and both it and the Senate were largely there to make sure slavery would spread and prosper. (With only the House and no Senate, the populous North could have voted to prevent the spread of slavery westward and confined the vicious institution to the South Atlantic states. Arguably, no Senate, no Civil War.)

Activists in the city of Washington have for years been trying to amend the Constitution to reclassify the District as a “state” so it can get two senators of its own. Of course it’s a crime that the District does not have voting representation in the House based on population. But that doesn’t make it a state and, while Wyoming currently has about the same population as D.C., it is inconceivable that the District could ever grow much larger, so one could envision a future in which all the other states number in the millions with the State of the District of Columbia (or whatever) stuck at around half a mil. Also, the real agenda of the activists — getting some representation for African-Americans in the Senate, since the District is largely black — could backfire were the District to re-gentrify into a bastion of white reaction, a process already nascent. The senators from D.C. would acquire an exaggerated importance in the way the D.C. Circuit Court already does, eclipsing the outsize status bestowed by the media on the senators from New York (not, for some reason, on those from California, but New York’s where the real money and power reside). In short, senators for D.C. would just exaggerate the undemocratic nature of the Senate; they would dilute California’s representation no less than Wyoming’s two senators already do.

No, the solution is to get rid of the Senate altogether and form a unicameral chamber. For those who think the Senate is useful as a choke on the excesses of the House, consider that some of the whacked-out legislation produced in the lower chamber that dies in the upper would never be proposed if there were a chance of its actual passage. We see the same principle in Texas politics. In the session just ended, the House threw up (I use that phrase advisedly) an unenforceable ban on risqué (i.e. black) cheerleading and the Senate killed it. The pork-chop gang in the House got to please their constituency of bigoted militia morons and half-witted fundamentalists with a symbolic measure they knew would die in the Senate before it could become a messy, unworkable burden on the state government and local school districts alike. This is not democracy; it’s a charade widely and deservedly mocked in the national media. Much of our government proceeds in this farcical fashion, in Washington as in Austin, and the bicameral model is to blame.

It gets worse. A lot of America’s most hideous legislation would never pass the floor of either chamber; instead it gets tacked onto a bill in conference committee. When the House and Senate pass slightly different versions of a bill, a conference committee is selected that is supposed to compromise on the differences. Too often this small committee uses the opportunity to treat the legislation as a vehicle for bestowing bennies on cronies. Government by conference committee is about as democratic as the Holy Roman Empire’s system of elective monarchy. Get rid of the bicameral model and you get rid of conference committees. For two centuries in Washington, every day’s been Christmas for big business and its lobbies and the conference committee is their Santa Claus.

Of course, the Senate is so enshrined in the Constitution that getting rid of it wouldn’t be easy. It would probably require a constitutional convention, not just an amendment. We probably won’t see it happen in our lifetime. Still, when you hear the Washington elite celebrating the survival of a “tradition” (the filibuster) that frustrates democracy and ensures bad government (even if it occasionally keeps a Bushist theocrat off the bench), consider the source. Go ahead and invoke the nuclear option. In fact, nuke the Senate. We’re better off without it.

Turn over another new leaf:
27 October 2004
The POTUS Podium and the Tube

There’s media bias, all right — in favor of a race that’s too close to call.

9 July 2004
Dear Hamoud

Meet your new job — same as my old job.

29 June 2004
Blonde Ambitions

Madonna calls Dr. Laura.

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