Sunday, April 14, 2013

Our Decrepit Constitution: Defanging the Senate

The Framers designed the Senate as a stronghold for prominent men. John Adams wrote that all members of the government should be gentlemen, which he defined as friends and connections of the well-born and educated. In those days, prominent men took pride in their erudition. We know what books Thomas Jefferson had in his library because he donated the entire collection to the Library of Congress after the War of 1812. Jefferson was an American patriot, but no isolationist. His library included an extensive collection of Greek and Latin classics, books in modern European Languages like French and Italian, and a broad selection of subjects from astronomy to poetry. He likely would have laughed at the idea, commonly espoused by today's Supreme Court, that only American laws should be consulted.

Adams himself wrote 10 volumes of scholarly books, primarily on government and law. He was both a scholar and an author, as well as a statesman. He believed in the superiority of the natural aristocracy. Adams believed the aristocracy were the only men who should be allowed to govern the new country. He and other framers believed that democracy was dangerous. He favored not a democracy but a republic which he defined as a government run by representatives of the people, not the people themselves.

The Senate was one of the measures taken by the framers to keep government firmly in the hands of the gentlemen. The framers assumed that fewer members in the Senate would make the positions more highly sought after. Originally, the Senators were to be appointed by state legislatures, rather than elected by the people directly. This method of appointment was thought to add even more assurance that only the best men would be elected to the senate. Senators were to serve for six years. This qualification insulated senators from pressure by the people they were supposed to represent. The framers believed senators should represent the votes of the people, not their opinions.

From the beginning, the Senate was a place where a few men could block progress, the inevitable change brought about by the passage of time. Progress happens primarily because people are changeable. New ideas arise for the popular mind to accept or reject as it sees fit. The framers assured that the public would learn new ideas when they guaranteed freedom of speech and religion. They tried to slow progress by omitting the liberal ideals expounded in the Declaration of Independence from the Constitution. The Constitution did not consider all men equal, at birth or at any other time. It consigns Africans to slavery and the original inhabitants to annihilation by making no reference to the rights of indiginous peoples.

During the first 60 years of its existence, the primary function of the Senate was to prevent any anti-slavery laws from passing. It did this by creating gridlock in the government. Each state had two senators, regardless of its population. The pro-slavery states assured that one slave-holding state would be admitted to the union for each new free state. This tactic meant that the number of pro-slavery senators always matched the number of anti-slavery senators. The admission of California as a free state in 1850 doomed the senate deadlock system and led to the Civil War.

The Senate remained a place where a minority faction could block the will of the majority. The Senate was still the bastion of elitism it had always been. During the twentieth century, the Senate opposed internationalism, preferring a protectionist system that they felt favored the wealthy banking and merchant classes in the U.S. The Senate used its veto power over treaties to wreck the League of Nations. President Wilson intended for the League to prevent major wars by creating a forum where the great powers could talk to each other instead of shooting at each other. Without the cooperation of the U.S., the League failed to prevent the next catastrophic war. The Senate still had more damage to inflict on the world, however, by committing the U.S. to a policy of isolationism. In that isolationism, Nazi Germany arose and grew until it was almost capable of taking over Europe. During the 1950s, the Senate used its filibuster power to block civil rights laws, once again delaying inevitable progress.

After the election of Barack Obama, the Senate used its filibuster power to halt most of the president's fiscal programs. This led to a prolonged recession and suffering for millions of Americans. The Senate, representing the wealthy elite, was not affected by the suffering it inflicted on others. By this time, the U.S. government had delayed facing numerous problems, including drug violence, massive incarceration of its minority populations, two disastrous wars, an enormous and expensive military, the collapse of the middle class, violence in its cities, and a country divided against itself to as great an extent as it had been in the 1850s.

The Framers modeled the Senate after the English House of Lords. The House of Lords performed the same function as the U.S. Senate, that is, rejecting legislation aimed at taxing the wealthy and aiding the poor. The British system was not crippled by a Constitution like ours, however, and in 1911 the Parliament passed a law removing most of the power of the House of Lords to reject or delay laws.

The U.S. Senate was certainly as much a hindrance to progress as the House of Lords. In the 20th century, the Senate kept the executive branch from forming critical alliances, enacting treaties that meant the difference between war and peace, and enacting legislation that provided equal rights to African Americans. In the 21st centure, the Senate became even more obstructive, blocking or delaying numerous judicial nominations and refusing to fund agencies that favored the middle class over Wall Street millionaires and corporate executives.

The addition of another layer of checks allotted to the wealthy class in the form of a powerful Senate is a drag on the government at a critical time in our history. After passage of the National Initiative Amendment, the people should pass initiatives that severely limit the power of the Senate as it is currently defined in the Constitution. The number of Senators should be increased by 100 at-large seats, elected by popular vote nationwide. This will increase the influence of larger states like New York and California, while making each Senator less powerful.

An amendment should pass that limits the ability of the Senate to delay a bill by more than 3 months. If the Senate refuses to accept a treaty negotiated by the executive within 6 months, the treaty will automatically be ratified. These reforms should defang the Senators and turn the Senate into a debating club for the wealthy. Its fangs will be removed.

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