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Toward the end of my Tuesday column on the Senate, I gestured toward the idea of making it into something like the British House of Lords, which has limited power to veto legislation or make policy. Most democracies with bicameral national legislatures have done something similar, empowering their lower, popular chambers and weakening their upper chambers.
The Canadian Senate, for example, acts mainly as a council of revision, amending legislation that comes out of the House of Commons. It can reject legislation, but it rarely exercises that power. The Australian Senate has much more power to block legislation from the House, but the chamber is more democratic than its American counterpoint in that it is apportioned by proportional representation.
The United States stands alone with a Senate that is powerful enough to grind the entire legislature to a halt. You could end the filibuster, of course, and that would improve things, but it would take a constitutional amendment to do any root and branch reform of the Senate.
Let’s say that amendment was on the table. What would it say?
What I would write is simple. I would repeal the 17th Amendment, returning the election of senators to each state legislature, and restoring the federal nature of the chamber. But to compensate for the end of popular election of senators, I would also strip the Senate of its power to introduce or veto legislation.
In my vision, the Senate would be a council of revision that continues to represent the states as states. I think this is necessary because the United States will likely be a federal democracy for as long as it exists, and the system should probably accommodate the interests of state governments (insofar as they exist) in one way or another.
My Senate could not block House legislation, but it could offer amendments if it chose to take action. Those amendments would then be voted on by a conference committee of House and Senate members, for final approval. If the Senate decides to hold a bill for revision, it has a set amount of time — let’s say 60 days — with which to act. If it does not act in that time, the bill is deemed passed and goes to the president for signing.
The Senate would retain its oversight powers as well as its power to approve treaties and offer “advice and consent” to the president for judicial and executive branch nominees. But “advice and consent” would mean an actual hearing and an actual vote.
The idea is to move the locus of policymaking back to the House of Representatives (which I would like to enlarge to at least 600 members), and to make it the most important chamber in the operation of government. In this scheme, it might be worth extending House terms to three years to reduce the pressures of campaigning and allow members more time to develop expertise, should they seek it.
My basic principle here is that the popular chamber of Congress should also be the most influential one. You see some of this in the Constitution as written — Article I, Section I establishes the Congress and Section II establishes the House — but I’d like to make it the defining part of our constitutional system. I also think that we’d have a more agile and effective government if we removed the veto point that is the Senate.
My scheme for transforming the structure of American government is a little broader and more nuanced than this (I’d like to extend federal representation to territories and Americans abroad, for example), but these are the basics of a major part of it. The Senate is too powerful. Let’s cut it down to size.
What I Wrote
My Tuesday column was on the problem of the Senate:
It may seem odd to blame the institution for this outcome. It’s not as if there is any alternative to passing legislation through both chambers of Congress. But it’s also no accident that climate legislation has repeatedly been passed in the House only to collapse in the Senate. It is no accident that, as a general rule, the upper chamber is where popular legislation goes to die or, if it isn’t killed, where it is passed in truncated and diminished form, like the recent (and lackluster) bipartisan gun bill. The Senate was built with this purpose in mind. It was designed to keep the people in check — to put limits on the reach of democracy and the scope of representation.
And my Friday column was on the problem of the Electoral College (a recurring theme, I know):
The Electoral College makes it difficult to see that each state contains a multitude of political perspectives, and that our democracy might be a little healthier if the vote of a Seattle Republican mattered as much for the outcome of a presidential election as that of a Green Bay Democrat“