Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Practical Plan to Reform the Senate

A common complaint against the US Senate is that it is undemocratic, that it stymies legislation needed and desired by "the people." For example, Wyoming, with its c.500,000 people, gets as much representation as California with its c. 20 million (?) people. Another example: the filibuster: a 3/5 majority is needed for "cloture," or to close off debate for most measures in the Senate, which means that 41% of the senators can prevent passage of a bill desired by 59% of the Senators.

I'm not one to overly praise "democracy," in part because as a term, it elusive. Also, I'm a bit enamored of putting some check on "majoritarianism," the doctrine that just because a majority believes something is desirable, then it ought to be put in practice, or (more extreme) that just because a majority believes something is desirable, then it is right. (To be fair, few people, to my knowledge, really believe this in practice: no one save extremists, for example, would think it would be right to re-implement Jim Crow even if 90% of the population desired it.)

But of late, I've become more sensitive to the charge that the Senate needs to be reformed. In particular, my desire for the "public option" in the health care bill, which is likely to pass the House of Representatives but which might not pass the Senate, drives home for me why I'd like the senate to be reformed.

I have to eat crow a bit. I seem to remember opposing the efforts of Republicans to do the "nuclear option," forcing through judicial confirmations by a simple majority. Now that there's a policy I'd like to be passed, I support doing away with minority dominance in the Senate. Still, motivations aren't everything, and anyone who wants the Senate reformed along more putatively "democratic" lines might listen to my ideas and agree with them, or not, regardless of what is for me a convenient change of heart.

I propose a constitutional amendment that would change the senate in the following way:
  1. The Senate would continue to have its Senate-specific functions, such as approving cabinet-level and other federal level appointments and ratifying treaties.
  2. The Senate could not initiate legislation, but it could amend legislation.
  3. The Senate would be able to exercise a "suspensatory veto" over the final draft of any legislation. If after the House debates all amendments proposed by the Senate and the Senate declines to approve the bill, the House may reenact the law 60 days after the Senate acts on the bill. If the Senate refuses to act on the bill, the bill would become law 60 days after it is referred to the Senate. There would be some check in the amendment to prevent the Senate from repeatedly adding amendments to the legislation to extend indefinitely a bill proposed to it.
  4. The Senate would be given added executive powers. It would be able to vote "no confidence" in any cabinet-level officer (either by a simple majority or a supermajority....I'm inclined to say 3/5 majority, but I'm as yet undecided.)
Such an amendment would have the following virtues:
  1. It would retain some of the Senate's power to check the excesses of the House of Representatives, even if only temporarily.
  2. It would put a much-needed check on presidential power and make the presidency more responsible to elected legislators.
  3. It addresses one practical objection to reforming the Senate, namely, that 2/3 of the Senate would never vote to refer an amendment to reduce their power. This amendment would actually grant more power, in some areas, to the Senators even while restricting the legislative power.
  4. It removes another obstacle to reform of the Senate. The Constitution provides that no amendment may deprive any state of its equal represenation in the Senate. Abolishing the Senate could, under that provision, be constued as an attempt to deprive states of their equal representation.

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