The Senate is broken because senators broke it
Something broke the Senate. It no longer legislates, and its members are frustrated.
Reflecting the mounting dissatisfaction with the status quo, a bipartisan group of 70 former senators recently published an open letter in the Washington Post calling on the Democrats and Republicans who are currently in the Senate to form a “bipartisan caucus” to commit to making the institution work.
The letter’s diagnosis that the Senate is not currently functioning as the framers of the Constitution envisioned is correct. And the former senators who signed it are right to link the malaise of their old institution to the broader dysfunction in our politics.
Yet the letter’s superficial prescription of more bipartisanship misses what broke the Senate in the first place. But while its solution is unlikely to fix the institution, the letter’s description of the problem unintentionally reveals what will.
More than 40% of the former members who signed the letter served in the Senate at some point during the last 20 years. Significantly, the Senate’s descent into dysfunction accelerated during this period. That the letter’s signatories did not act when they served in the institution to arrest its downward trajectory underscores the unwillingness of today’s senators to do what it takes to make it work.
The observed behavior of today’s senators suggests that they are not interested in advancing “strongly held positions” in committees or on the Senate floor. By extension, senators do not “vigorously engage in legislative combat.” Instead, they increasingly spend their time in quorum calls and voting to confirm presidential nominees.
According to the letter, the culprit responsible for this state of affairs is a mysterious force that prevents senators from trying to achieve their stated policy goals. For example, the letter asserts confidently that “Senate committees have lost responsibility for writing legislation.” It unambiguously declares that “filibusters are now threatened as a matter of course, and are too readily acceded to.” And it laments the fact that “rank-and-file members” lack “reasonable opportunities to advance their positions” in the Senate.
But the letter does not identify the senators who are responsible for their institution’s predicament. It does not say which senators are preventing committees from finding their responsibility to write legislation. Nor does the letter single out the senators who are threatening filibusters routinely or their colleagues who too readily accede to such threats. Moreover, the letter emphasizes that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer are not responsible for the Senate’s dysfunction.
And therein lies the absurdity of its analysis. Its committees do not cause the Senate’s problem. And it isn’t caused by rank-and-file senators or their party leaders. According to the letter, no one broke the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body.
It is not clear how a bipartisan caucus will fix what no one has broken.
In reality, responsibility for the Senate’s dysfunction rests on its members, Democrat and Republican. That this dysfunction persists no matter who’s elected is one reason why anti-establishment politicians keep becoming so popular. Fixing the institution requires that senators act like senators instead of victims of a mysterious force that prevents them from acting at all.
Senators are not victims. They do not need to “celebrate compromise” for it to occur. They only need to legislate. Compromise emerges out of the legislative process when senators debate controversial issues in committees and on the floor. It happens when senators try to win. It happens when they act.
Senators should ignore the counsel of their former colleagues. They do not need another bipartisan caucus to reverse the Senate’s current dysfunction. Instead, they need to be legislative warriors who are willing to engage in combat on behalf of the people they represent.
The Senate is a crucible of conflict. It cannot survive without it.