In Defense of the Senate: How Antiquated Institutions Affect Democracy

 /  Dec. 23, 2022, 12:09 p.m.

US Senate Image
The United States Senate chamber

If you’re like most Americans, you have ever-uneasily observed the divisions brewing in our nation. You might drive past your neighbor’s home and see a political yard sign with some provocative and completely baseless slogan. Or you might find yourself angry after watching CNN, Fox News, or even C-SPAN and being subject to a constant barrage of political grandstanding. It’s no wonder that Congress has such low approval ratings; we the people know what we want, so why is it so difficult to see our wishes reflected in our legislature?

First, it is reckless to assume that “we” and “our” are functional pronouns in American politics today. Social scientists find that American society has begun to descend into a cycle of toxic individualism since the 1970s. People spend less time volunteering, going to church, and engaging with their communities than those a few generations ago. Instead, as a society, we are more competitive and less willing to listen to each other. 

Pundits have observed that, in the past decades, a similar shift has occurred in the attitude politicians bring to the deliberative sphere that is the United States Senate. Ira Shapiro, a career diplomat and author, wrote that, amid the political turmoil through the 1960s and ‘70s, the Senate uniquely positioned itself to deal with the most pressing issues of the day, from civil rights to presidential scandal. In his portrayal, he describes senators “work[ing] on the basis of mutual respect, tolerance of opposing views, and openness to persuasion in the search for bipartisan solutions.” The incoming congresspeople of 1981, he says, were the first to appear willing to “obstruct government” in opposition to the broader national interest, which chipped away at the institution’s credibility.

The evolution of technology and, thus, means of communication have only allowed the problems of hyper-competitiveness and obstructionism to worsen. Researchers at Princeton University find that the advent of social media has facilitated new ways of not only obstructing discourse, but also filtering out opposing viewpoints – something that might appeal to society’s present psyche, but ultimately threatens its very functionality.

Over the years, a shift away from the respect, tolerance, and openness described by Shapiro has indeed taken place in Congress. The echo chambers of social media formed almost in parallel with similar governmental trends away from inclusive deliberation – like the use of the so-called “nuclear option” in the Senate, which eliminates the filibuster and reduces the required number of votes from 60 to 51. When then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid first invoked it in 2013 for most presidential appointees, it showed a hyper-competitive majority’s disregard for the important consensus-building that had previously taken place regarding who would serve in the executive and judicial branches of government. When Mitch McConnell later took majority leadership, he reciprocated by expanding the nuclear option to the confirmation of Supreme Court nominees, further devaluing consideration of and compromise with a scrutinous minority. Following a long trend, hyperpartisanship has been found to have peaked in the current 117th Congress, but its rate of bill-passing has tanked. Undoing legislative precedent might allow congresspeople to make more noise, but does bypassing political compromise actually help American society?

Perhaps a better examination of the interplay between public discourse and institutional integrity could be found after a look at a man with much experience wielding both – Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. A deep respecter of the Senate, he is said to have been enraged at the desecration of its very chamber on January 6. However, during the following Senate impeachment trial of then-President Donald Trump, he ultimately voted for acquittal. Later, it became obvious that the Democrats’ agenda was unlikely to advance with the filibuster intact, so those on the political left floated abolishing it. In response, McConnell promised a “scorched earth Senate” in which all activity (most of which now occurs smoothly via a procedure called “unanimous consent”) grinds to a halt. That would mean that those who work tirelessly to make the Senate work for the American people – like Laura Dove – would have much more difficult jobs and have much less to show for it.

Laura Dove has spent decades serving the United States Senate as a principal staffer. In 2013, she was appointed by McConnell and approved by the full Senate as the Secretary for the Minority (from 2015, Secretary for the Majority). She retired in early 2020. She coordinated behind-the-scenes negotiations regarding legislative procedures and scheduling on the Senate floor. Her job required close relationships with the Democratic Senate Secretary and other staff across the aisle, colleagues in the House of Representatives and the White House, and of course the Senate Republican Conference to ensure that important bills, presidential nominations, and treaties could get fair debates and timely votes. I sat down with Dove to hear her perspective as such an authority on America’s top legislative body.

As she would have me first clarify, the Republican Conference was not top-of-mind as she completed her work. She explained that “the job reports to all senators and the whole Senate has to elect you — all 100 senators — and there's a reason for that. While you are protecting the interests of Republican senators, mostly you have to be mindful of the Senate as an institution and care about the rights of all senators.” This attitude of respecting a broader purpose is reflected throughout her portrayal of the Senate’s work.

Dove first explained that the Senate is a slow, antiquated institution. In her seminars at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, she recited an anecdote in which George Washington explains that, like with his coffee, “we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.” “They don't have quill pens or wigs, but that's really their only nod to modernity,” Dove said. She argues that this ultimately benefits the legislative process because the slow, deliberative legislating done in the Senate ensures that the bills sent out of Congress and to the President are sensible and “durable,” as Dove refers to it. For example, she mentioned the diverse coalition of Senators – although they were all Democrats, there were many moderates in the caucus – who passed Obamacare. A “skinny repeal” was attempted in 2017, but Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine, and the “conscience of the Senate” John McCain of Arizona prevented it; despite going against their party, they believed that it was wrong to repeal such impactful legislation. In 2010, the bill overcame a filibuster and rigorous debate and has since improved the lives of countless Americans; when it was threatened, those senators chose a law that had been cooled by the Senate over hot partisan rhetoric.

Despite momentous occasions like that, one frustration that Dove expressed was that she feels like “the American people don't really have a window into progress that's being made, because it's not super exciting, and it's not usually very bold.” From gun legislation, to the Electoral Count Reform Act, to the 2018 reform of the foster care system, she touted the inglorious but necessary work that Senators do in a bipartisan way to deliver for the American people. “I'm not sure how to make it more interesting to the American people. But it makes me more confident that the people that we're electing are trying to do the right thing – because they are.”  While it is true that certain statistics show that the modern Congress is less effective at passing quantities of legislation, this cannot be the only gauge. Just as she touted the work of the Senate that might not be newsworthy, Dove defended its principled version of productivity – not just quantitative productivity. “Productive is in the eye of the beholder,” she says. If characterized as a balance between meeting the needs of the American people through its constitutional duty to provide for the general welfare and preventing the governmental overreach that concerns some conservatives, the present Congress has been successful in striking that balance.

“And I think if you look at productivity in terms of meeting the moment, this last Congress has been pretty productive. So have they responded to the priorities of the American people? Have they responded to some of the emergencies that have cropped up as the Senate met the moment on issues? I think they have. I've been very impressed with what they were able to do to respond on gun safety regulations. That Senators Cornyn and Murphy met in the middle and have made incremental progress on background checks and other gun safety measures – it's pretty incredible to me.”

If there is a lesson to be learned from the Senate about how we should approach democracy, it can be found beneath the cracks in the political facade that opened on January 6, 2021. When asked about that day, Dove explained that “it was surprising to the people who were inside the chamber that this was happening. It didn't occur to them that protesters and insurrectionists would be storming the Capitol and making it into the chamber. They were completely and totally unaware that this was about to hit.” McConnell let his guard down to his staff, expressing his deep frustration that the day for rigorous debate over electors had devolved into violence. Senator Lindsey Graham revealed his thoughts on the Senate floor when he said “enough is enough, count me out” – breaking with President Trump, a close ally, over his incitement of the insurrection and subsequent desecration of the Senate chamber. The immediate reactions in the days following January 6 seem to provide the clearest affirmation of Dove’s phraseology: it became clear that these senators wanted to be doing the right thing – because they were.

America’s polarization problem does not originate in the institutions of government; the institutions conform to the times, and they appear polarized because American society is experiencing a time of equally great division. What about McConnell’s vote of acquittal and threats in defense of the filibuster? Political goals aside, it seems he was defending the character of the deliberative body, of which he is such a respecter, from what he perceived to be unprincipled political games.

The Senate was designed for legislators to deliberate on the basis of principle and patriotism, and Dove said that “there’s no way to hide” from constituents. Despite the inevitable influence of a deeply divided American populace, that principled and patriotic character remains in the upper chamber. What they do when they embody that character is usually seen as unremarkable by the media standards of today, but if instead of seeking the limelight, senators could take one step further into “dinosaur land” and ignore the expectations placed on them by a vocal few constituents, the American people at large would take notice. The Senate has the potential to have a monumental impact on American discourse; if senators could completely fulfill their role as noble deliberators and show Americans what it truly means to work together to meet the moment – rigorous debates and long negotiations, but always with mutual respect and common values –, echo chambers could eventually open, people could talk more openly, trends could reverse, and America’s cooling saucer would have done its job.

The image featured in this article is licensed from reuse under the Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license. No changes were made to the original image, which was taken by Eric Haynes and can be found here.

Nathan Mock


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