Forget ghostly apparitions…the Senate has disappeared!
In the wake of America’s scariest holiday and on the eve of what promises to be a contentious election, many people think Americans have a lot to be scared about. And, indeed, those who donned their costumes to go out reveling on Saturday did so amidst a deadly pandemic that has racked up approximately 227,000 deaths—a number that exceeds the total number of Americans killed in any war except the Second World War (405,399) and the Civil War (498,332).
But, as these other things take center stage, what has happened quietly in the background is arguably just as scary—the Senate appears to have vanished! When it comes to the most critical issues of the day, our senators are missing in action. They don’t debate bills. They don’t force action on their proposals. And they definitely don’t offer amendments.
Instead, they go to lunch a few times a week in D.C. before flying home each weekend. And while the election and COVID may seem more immediate worries, the Senate’s vanishing act renders it unable to address these—or any—of the pressing issues Americans look to the legislative body to deliberate and then make decisions about on behalf of the entire nation.
More than two thousand years ago, Celtic peoples celebrated the ancient autumnal festival of Samhain to protect themselves from the spirits that roamed the countryside on the last night in October—All Hallows’ Eve. Millions of Americans continue that tradition today—though most do it for the candy, not the spirits.
Yet, just like our ancient predecessors, Americans understandably worry about uncertainty and the unknown—and that worry drives them to elect legislators that will prevent their imagined worst-case scenarios from becoming a reality. This is why the disappearance of the institution once known by many as the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body is so troubling.
Of course, the Senate is not the first legislature to experience an untimely demise or even the threat of one. In 1605, the English Parliament narrowly escaped being blown to bits after its officials found Guy Fawkes lurking beneath the House of Lords with thirty-six gunpowder barrels. Fawkes and his co-conspirators wanted to blow up the House of Lords in retaliation for policies—especially regarding religious toleration—that its members enacted with the House of Commons and the Crown.
In 1814, British soldiers exacted retribution for Americans burning Canada’s legislative assembly building in York (present-day Toronto) by setting fire to the Capitol. Both sides targeted the other’s legislature precisely because they were understood as powerful institutions.
The German Reichstag (or parliament) also burnt to the ground after it was torched in 1933, just weeks after Adolf Hitler became the chancellor. While Hitler blamed communist agitators for the blaze, many suspected that the perpetrators were disguised Nazi thugs. Whatever their identity, the critical point here is that Hitler used the idea of communist agitators attacking Germany’s democracy to seize near-total power and, in the process, destroyed that democracy. All of these examples highlight the importance that self-governing peoples assign to their legislatures.
Today, however, Americans don’t have to resort to elaborate plots or physical destruction. On the contrary, most don’t even seem to have noticed the Senate’s abdication of duty. This merely underscores how inconsequential the institution has become. That is, the Senate’s absence isn’t significant because senators don’t do much worth noticing anyway.
And this is perhaps the scariest thing of all—because all it takes to destroy a legislature is for legislators and voters to stop caring what happens there. Tyrants don’t need to seize power when the people’s representatives give it up willingly.
So, on the eve of an election that has become obsessively focused—however justifiably—on the personality of the president, let us not forget that our American system has persevered as it has for almost 250 years precisely because of its deliberately designed system of checks and balances. If those occupying seats in the First Branch of government no longer wish to fulfill their constitutional duty, our citizens have a right—and a duty—to select new representatives who will. The continuation of our democracy depends upon it.