Forget Filibuster Reform, Let’s Force Debate in the Senate


Photo by Kelli Dougal | Unsplash

Photo by Kelli Dougal | Unsplash

Instead of serving as a forum for great national debates, the United States Senate has devolved into both a graveyard and a stage. The Senate is where bills go to die and where Senators go to perform. For the most part, the Senators perform outrage for C-SPAN cameras, which their communications teams can then splice into Tweets or campaign spots and leverage to book appearances on talk radio and cable news shows. Most importantly, they perform for higher office—namely, the Presidency. Deliberation and debate are all but dead in what was once aptly known as “the greatest deliberative body in the world.” Now, the moniker is laughable.


As thinkers like Yuval Levin have argued, this amounts to a perversion of the institution. The Senate should be in the business of forging compromises, conducting great and momentous debates, and passing laws. Instead, it has become just another cog in the political outrage machine. The Senate should be molding the characters of its members in a manner that is conducive to governing. Instead, its members are molding the Senate into a TV studio.


As we increasingly conduct our politics via our televisions, Twitter feeds, and phone screens, the Senate has responded. We have lost touch with the habits of self-governing and have grown accustomed to performative politics. So have our Senators.


Although grassroots activists and everyday citizens have been focused on the abolition or reform of the Senate filibuster, maybe we should place less focus on how the Senate votes and more on what the Senate does. What is the function of the Senate? Why do we have it in the first place? And what can be done to make the institution work as intended?

In some ways, the Senate is a bit of an anachronism. It was designed to give states independent stakes in the new federal Congress, thereby allaying small-states’ fears of large-state domination and giving voice to Americans’ extremely strong state-based identities at the time of the founding.


So, now that our political identities are nationalized, should we get rid of the anti-democratic Senate?


Of course not. The Senate also serves another purpose: deliberation. The Senate is not meant to serve as a rubber stamp on whatever public opinion may be or whatever a House majority can agree upon. There is a reason why we are a republic, and not a democracy: The people we elect are not supposed to be mere vessels of popular opinion. They are meant to exercise wisdom, prudence, and independent judgment. Members of the House are supposed to do this too, and the Senate offers an additional layer, an additional brake—but not a barrier—on the legislative process. As scholars like Greg Weiner have argued, the Senate can advance the goal of founders like James Madison to have less passion-driven and more rational politics, but that can’t happen without deliberation in the Senate.


There is nothing particularly special about Senators as individuals. They’re largely old, wealthy lawyers. I have no grudge against old, wealthy lawyers. In fact, I hope to one day be an old, wealthy lawyer. Still, my cheekiness aside, the point here is that something crucial is lost in the governing process when the Senate no longer deliberates. Leaving bills to up or down votes—or no votes at all—without even so much as a discussion is a tragedy. The Senate is supposed to be a place of deliberation, where Senators can explain their constituents’ and their own views on certain matters, exchange ideas, and try to find some sliver of common ground. But that will never happen if they no longer talk to one another.


So, the Senate’s twin status as one-part graveyard and one-part stage makes sense: The fewer Senators talk to one another and the more they talk at television screens and through Twitter feeds, the less of a chance the Senate can produce anything of legislative substance, let alone value.


What can be done?


I’m no expert, but I do know that the day-to-day business of the Senate is a function of the Senate rules, and the Senators themselves are free to amend those rules as they see fit. So, why don’t they amend the rules in a manner that fosters deliberation?


In particular, I would like to see a requirement for one, mandatory three-hour session of free-wheeling debate each week during which the Senate is in session. Yes, all 100 Senators should be required to attend—to actually be sitting in the darn chamber—for this mandatory debate period. Perhaps nothing would come of it. Perhaps Senators will simply shout one another down, and no meaningful interchanges would be had. Perhaps Ted Cruz will read “Green Eggs and Ham.”


For those of us who think that the underlying purpose of the Senate is to foster debate and deliberation, trying to force some debate and deliberation on that once august body seems to make sense.


So, if you’re as disgusted with the current state of Senate affairs as I am, consider hopping on the “forced debate” bandwagon rather than the filibuster one.

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