If you ever want a really disheartening education on the godawful history of the United States Senate, read Robert Caro’s wonderful Master of the Senate, part of his LBJ autobiography series. There, you’ll get a thorough rundown of how our upper congressional chamber has steadfastly placed itself in the way of progress for hundreds of years, and how the glory days of Webster and Calhoun and Clay have long given way to the worst kind of obstructionism. If you love the feeling of fury, simply read about how Senators from the southeast alone made it impossible to pass any kind of anti-lynching legislation all the way through the Civil Rights era. Again, that’s anti-lynching legislation. That historical black eye was finally corrected in February of this year—no, I’m not kidding—and while the move had long since become all but symbolic, it certainly was not that way in the ‘50 and ‘60s when the southerners were using the filibuster and any other tactic in their arsenal to ensure every anti-lynching effort died a certain death inside the Senate’s walls.
Broadly, very little has changed today. The Senate is a giant pothole on the road to progress. As long as it’s controlled by the GOP—and due to malapportionment, it will be insanely difficult to wrest it from their hands—we can forget any meaningful action on climate change, or health care, or election reform (HR1 is a wonderful bill that will never, ever make it to the Senate floor). This is true even with a Democratic president, and in fact, as the Obamacare process showed, even a party that controls both houses of Congress and the presidency is prone to having their legislation watered down by competing interests within a single party.
There are a million procedural methods of stopping good legislation in its tracks, of which the filibuster is just one, and like the Dixiecrats of old, men like Mitch McConnell are experts at gaming the system. If you didn’t know any better, you’d guess that the overarching goal of the Senate is to bring our nation to a legislative impasse—that is, almost always, the end result. What was designed to be a body committed to checking the impulses of the presidential party (hence the six-year terms) has instead become an ultra-effective method of standing in the way of the people’s will. That’s why the late, great John Dingell, among many others, advocated for abolishing the Senate completely. As he pointed out last December, the composition of the Senate puts power into the hands of conservatives in an example of egregious popular imbalance:
Today, in a nation of more than 325 million and 37 additional states, not only is that structure antiquated, it’s downright dangerous. California has almost 40 million people, while the 20 smallest states have a combined population totaling less than that. Yet because of an 18th-century political deal, those 20 states have 40 senators, while California has just two. These sparsely populated, usually conservative states can block legislation supported by a majority of the American people. That’s just plain crazy…it is understood that even should a good bill make it through the hyper-partisan House, it will die a quiet death in the Senate because of the disproportionate influence of small states. With my own eyes, I’ve watched in horror and increasing anger as that imbalance in power has become the primary cause of our national legislative paralysis.
Which brings us to Jeff Merkley. The Democratic Senator from Oregon has been weighing a presidential run, but on Tuesday morning he announced that he was opting not to run. His primary reason? Fixing the Senate. Watch the relevant part of his announcement below:
In Merkley’s words:
“I believe that there are Democrats now in the presidential race who are speaking to the importance of tackling the big challenges we face,” he said. “But what I’m also sure of is that right now the Senate is not prepared to be a full partner in this fight. My best contribution is to run for re-election and do all I can to help the Senate be a full partner in addressing the challenges before us.”
“And,” he added, “I’m going to work to fix our broken and dysfunctional Senate so it isn’t just a graveyard of good ideas. To fix America, we must fix the Senate.”
Clearly, the work he outlines is bigger than one man, but having a senator like Merkley acknowledge the fundamental brokenness at the heart of the institution he represents is a good beginning, and the fact that he’s committed to rectifying the institutional injustice gives some hope for true reform.
Watch Merkley’s full announcement video here.