By Robert S. Becker
January 19, 2010
To judge anything made, advised C. S. Lewis, identify the designers’ full intentions, whether about a cathedral or corkscrew. Reality, that which outlasts all denials and impediments, depends not on what inventors or partisans claim, but what something actually does, over time, fulfilling or defeating intent.
How many literate, brilliant Founders wouldn’t wince at today’s dysfunctional, theatrically partisan Senate, packed with marvels like senators Inhofe, DeMint, Bunning, Coburn, Burris, Ensign, Vitter, Lieberman or Specter? It’s a specter all right, leaving rational folks to gawk – and these guys presumably defeated someone less deserving? No wonder our government is going from paralyzed to kaput.
Entitling it the Senate, Founders evoked latter-day Roman Senates, disregarding despotic origins when senile, seniority-laden senators (every s-word here answers to “senex,” for old man) rubberstamped the king who picked them. Okay, they used their thumbs or shells to vote and, yes, political toadying was invented before rubber or stamps.
Undeterred, for a new nation in a new world, here was the republican ideal, a counsel of savvy elders above the fray, whose six-year terms would balance wisely the self-interest of small states with overriding national mandates – the greatest good for the greatest number. Results, alas, fall a tad short, no triumph of reason or reflection over the gang mentality of mob rule. This year, the Senate displayed such capricious discord and reality avoidance they made the bland House look the fount of wisdom. Today “deliberation” means extreme pettiness and blocking votes on key appointments, a stealth Senator’s privilege kin to signing statements.
The Senate Loony Bin
Remember your history: afraid of the emotional hysteria bound to swamp a House with a two-year tether, Founders fashioned a Senate immune to crass maneuvering or rampant self-interest. Missed on that one. Not only was precious little deliberation visible this season, ugly politics-as-usual packed health reform with pork, as deciding votes came with high price tags. With utter routine, the GOP insolence harkened back to historic disgraces, when it said “Yes” to discrimination but “Hell, no” to civil rights, women’s rights, housing rights, voting rights, abortion rights, children’s health and elders’ medical rights. Now a weekly plague, the menacing filibuster fulfills the darker side of this House of Lords, providing a systemic veto of majority rule, a slap to the letter and spirit of our Constitutional core.
Worse still, Senate rules bizarrely empower tiny minorities, allowing the least progressive, smallest backwaters to get their way. And why? In fashioning America, low-populated, anti-minority (slave-owning) states demanded extreme electoral power, thus dominating national politics (and presidencies) over our first “four score and seven years.” Ditto the most egregious Constitutional blackmail, awarding 3/5s of a vote for every slave (thus ballooning southern dominance). Reactionary, anti-reform voices, then terrified of an anti-slave president, reemerge in today’s GOP, aghast when racially-, culturally- and economically-diverse majorities demand their rights.
The Last Primitive Society
Across all issues, the Senate now marries glaring elitism with reactionary defenses of the status quo, a greater menace to progress and humane government than terrorism, climate, or that bevy of fake rogue politicians. Any notion of Senate philosopher-kings is thwarted by crass favoritism and partiality, passions and privilege, ego and seniority, operating somewhere between a zoo and an asylum. Per ex-senator Bob Dole: “If you’re hanging around with nothing to do and the zoo is closed, come over to the Senate. You’ll get the same kind of feeling and you won’t have to pay.” Except that Senate morasses and dead ends are paid for in spades over time.
No surprise then for 130 years senators weren’t even popularly elected but cherrypicked by state legislatures until outlawed in 1913. And what glorified elite doesn’t also insist on a super-majority, thus the filibuster, which until 1975 still took 67 votes to end (now 60). Eugene McCarthy captured the Senate perfectly as “the last primitive society in the world. We still worship the elders of the tribe and honor the territorial imperative.” Thus, massive scandals and scams galore, whether graft, bribes, blackmail, influence peddling, nearly fatal beatings, or unpunished sexual improprieties.
“Negators” betraying history
Of course, it’s dastardly members able to manipulate the structure that most indicts Senate integrity. Pick from modern poseurs, schemers and illiterates, or hypocrites like Ensign, Craig (ret.) or Vitter; or retired crooks like Stevens, Coleman or Torricelli. “All I can say,” observed Will Rogers, “is that [the Senate] opens with a prayer and closes with an investigation.” Likewise, Teddy Roosevelt quipped, “When they call the roll in the Senate, the Senators do not know whether to answer ‘Present’ or ‘Not Guilty’.”
And today’s are not the most regressive, compared to extinct dinosaurs, namely Joe McCarthy, Strom Thurmond, John Stennis or Jesse Helms. Instead of senators, we should call these clowns “Negators,” dead weight that retarded human advancement. Even rock-solid Republican, Everett Dirksen, once joked, “When a member of the House moves over to the Senate, he raises the IQ of both bodies.”
Graveyard of the Constitution
If Afghanistan is the 2000 year-old graveyard of empires, the dysfunctional Senate is the 200+ year-old graveyard of Constitutional mandates, where fair-minded, humane ideas go to die. The disorder goes beyond ignorant or corrupt senators, but how long, and at what mounting cost, can we tolerate a “mere” Senate rule, never publicly approved, that subverts the Constitution? If 41 votes defeats 59 daily, let us dispatch our vaunted pride in majority rule and freedom, let alone one-person, one vote, as a farce. Face it: we are a formal oligarchy, ruled by an invulnerable elite, in gross violation of our founding ideals. You’d think this was newsworthy.
If the country were younger, we’d never have this relic when only (white, rich, male) landowners who feared the unwashed populace counted. An imperial Senate is the price for having the oldest republic on the planet, composed by imperfect visionaries born almost 300 years ago. No rational democracy would institutionalize direct violations of its Constitution, nor an “upper” body that trumps the People’s House, the far better mirror of majorities.
If, as the bleak pessimists argue, we are sliding downhill, dragged towards impotence by this seemingly unmovable anchor, here it begins. Forget Afghanistan – or Yemen or Iraq – how about redeeming our noble Constitution from entrenched, systemic terrorism orchestrated by a selfish, secretive elite – and do some home-grown nation-building of our own?
The Constitution allows for a convention whereby a new Constitution can be written. This needs to be done to repair the obvious errors in the original.