The U.S. Senate is becoming an echo chamber for the majority party. That’s not the type of representative government the Founders envisioned.
They crafted a Constitution through rigorous and difficult debate, setting up a government that carefully balanced tensions among states, local districts and three coequal branches of government. They enthroned representative government and intended the kind of robust argument, amendment and compromise that typified American lawmaking until recent years.
Now, lawmakers, perhaps representing Americans’ attitudes, seem to be retreating to their own corners of the Senate, unwilling to engage.
That needs to change.
Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, apparently has had enough. Politico.com reported this week that he took umbrage before the start of a two-week recess, noting he has yet to receive a roll call vote on any of his legislative amendments. The Senate has voted on just six amendments all year.
“All I hear is, ‘Well, it’s not done that way,’” he said.
But it ought to be. The U.S. Senate should be one of the greatest deliberating bodies in the world, but it’s currently mired in a bog that allows few conversations, let alone meaningful debate. The idea that whichever party controls the majority ought to ram through whatever it can makes for poor legislation.
Both sides are to blame. Democrats pushed through Obamacare without a single Republican vote. Republicans have done much the same with recent tax cuts and other legislation.
Politico reports the Senate has had only 25 roll call votes on binding amendments more than a year into its current two-year session. Compare that with 154 amendments by this point for the last Congress.
Senate President Mitch McConnell promised more freewheeling debate when Republicans took power in 2015. That lasted a while, but then the Senate became more partisan, with Republicans less concerned about gaining the support of Democrats for key legislation.
Now, McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., can only blame each other for the lack of debate. We’re sure there is plenty of blame to go around. The public, however, is left with little more than a surety that the same will continue regardless of which party controls the Senate.
The Senate has the added responsibility of having to confirm executive branch appointees, including judges and members of the president’s cabinet. This is a time-consuming process, made more so by the president’s recent firings. But it is no excuse.
The Senate ought to be holding freewheeling and difficult debates on immigration reform, hashing out the details of a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, bill that each side professes to support. It ought to be debating a federal budget, with all the necessary, honest give-and-take around worries about deficits and a mounting national debt.
Instead, it does little.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., told Politico, “There’s a lot of weeks I’m not sure why I show up.”26 comments on this story
And the public may be wondering why it pays the salaries and attendant costs for this.
Sen. McConnell should return to regular order, follow the budget process and open the Senate floor for rigorous debates and real amendment process. Citizens should call and write the majority leader to encourage the Senate function as the Founders designed it, and individual senators should voice their support for regular order. The country should expect more, not less, from what once was and what can become the world’s greatest deliberative body.