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Reforming the Senate for Today's Politics

David Callahan

Once upon a time, a few decades ago, members of the U.S. Senate spent a fair amount of time together and got to know each other personally. They were more likely to stick around Washington on the weekends, and during breaks, and socialized together more often with their families. 

Once upon a time, too, the party lines in the Senate were pretty fuzzy. Republican Senators from the north were often more liberal than Democratic Senators from the south. Alliances and friendship across party lines were common.

All of this allowed the Senate to operate smoothly and get stuff done. Yes, Senate rules theoretically allowed any member to throw sand in the gears, but that was not something often done in an environment where people knew and trusted each other. Nobody wanted to be the jerk at the club. 

Flash forward to today. Senators cut out of town at the end of the week, flying back to their states to raise money or engage in virtually nonstop campaigning. Crazy busy Senators don't socialize much with each other and their families often live back in home states. Meanwhile, party lines have turned sharply ideological. Southern Democrats and northern Republicans are largely gone. Cross-party alliances are getting rarer and rarer. The crossover types or moderates who are in the Senate are disappearing left and right: Olympia Snowe, Ben Nelson, Joe Lieberman are all retiring at the end of this year.


The Senate is no longer a club. It hasn't been for years. It is a battlefield. And using the rules to fight dirty, uncommon in the old days, is now a daily occurence. As George Packer wrote in the New Yorker two years ago:

After the Republicans lost their majority in 2006, filibusters became everyday events: there were a hundred and twelve cloture votes in 2007 and 2008, and this session Republicans are on target to break their own filibuster record.

The tally of cloture votes reflects only a small fraction of senatorial obstruction. Three hundred and forty-five bills passed by the House have been prevented from even coming up for debate in the Senate. “Why?” Steny Hoyer, the outraged Democratic Majority Leader of the House, asked me. “Because they do not do their business in a way that facilitates noncontroversial things. Thankfully, the House of Representatives is not becoming the Senate. . . . "

Seventy-six nominees for judgeships and executive posts have been approved by committees but, because of blocks, haven’t come up for a vote in the full Senate, leaving courtrooms idle and jobs unfilled across the upper levels of the Obama Administration. (The Democrats also practiced the art of blocking nominees during the Bush Administration.) There’s often no objection to the individual being blocked: after an eight-month hold, Martha Johnson, nominated to run the General Services Administration, was confirmed 96–0. On an issue like health-care reform, when the objection was substantive, Republicans ransacked Riddick’s “Senate Procedure” for every conceivable way to delay a debate and vote. . . .

In the current Senate, it has become normal for a handful of senators, sometimes representing just ten or twenty per cent of the country’s population, to hold everything up.

As a result of all this, Packer notes that the U.S. Senate has become a "backwater of the U.S. government." 

Not surprisingly, Congress enjoys the lowest approval ratings since polling was invented. Reform of the U.S. Senate is long overdue: Not to benefit one party or the other, but so that our political system can actually operate as the founders intended.