The Tyranny of the Senate: Part Two -- The Solution

12/20/2010 11:28 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Click here to read Part One

There is only one way to end the Tyranny of the Senate. Eliminate it altogether. Get rid of the Senate. We cannot turn the clock back. Repeal of the 17th Amendment would only turn the Senate's power back to the State legislatures. Does anyone think that's a good idea? The "Best & Brightest" may have been in those State Houses back in the 18th century, but who would say that's so today? Have you looked at your own State legislature lately? Changing the Senate rules would be helpful, but that would only benefit those who favor the rules change. It would not solve the problem of authoritarian usurpation.

The US Senate has simply outlived its purpose and its usefulness. If you fear "runaway democracy" in the House, or if a President who actually might get his legislative agenda voted into law scares you half to death, perhaps you're really looking for another political system, one which is more respectful to your limited interest. The Senate has become not only superfluous it's now downright dangerous to America. It obstructs the will of the American people as expressed through the 435 Members of the House. And it obstructs the agenda of the President who is elected by all Americans. Why should one senator - elected with a few hundred thousand votes - be able to thwart both the House and the President? The Tyranny of the Senate effectively stifles both.

Who's responsible? This evisceration is orchestrated by Mitch McConnell, a senator because he got 945,067 votes. McConnell's Republican cabal allows any single senator to bring the work of the US federal government to a screeching halt. That includes even Alaska's Lisa Murkowski who was elected with a mere 101,088 write-in ballots. The rules and procedures that govern the daily routine of the Senate have made this minority usurpation of democratic power possible.

The Constitution (Article I. Sec. 5) says, "Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings." And therein lies the problem. Yes, reason dictates that if you're creating a Congress that is supposed to be an independent, co-equal branch of government you should allow that Congress to make its own rules. In the 18th century no one seriously imagined a popularly elected Senate establishing rules to make itself the ultimate center of power in American government. In fact, they rejected the popular election of senators. But, modern Americans should have seen this day coming. We've had almost a hundred years to observe the jeopardy inherent in the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. Nothing has done more to tear the fabric of America's original creation of constitutional government than the direct election of US Senators. It is the combination of the original constitutional authority, reserved to the Senate, and that 1913 amendment that has now given us a federal government dominated by a tyrannical handful of small-State and smaller vote getting senators.

The original constitution created all senators equal. But it meant for them to represent their states, not a popular electoral constituency. How's that "senatorial equality" working out? Both Sen. Boxer of California and Sen. Murkowski of Alaska represent 1% of the US Senate. But one got 60 times as many votes as the other. Boxer has exceeded 6 million votes in a single election in her electoral career. Murkowski got 100,000. The whole population of Alaska is less than 2% of California's population. But in the Senate chamber, Murkowski is the equal of Boxer in every way. How can that be called representative democracy?

Under the rules, any senator can "declare" a filibuster. They aren't required to actually stand on the Senate floor and speak, or pull together like-minded colleagues who will maintain control of the floor -- which is what a filibuster is. All any single senator needs to do is "declare" his or her intentions. Then it takes a vote of 60 senators to overcome that "intention" and force debate open. Sen. Murkowski can do it with the same ease as Sen. Boxer. It's not sixty times harder for one than the other. And any senator can put a "hold" on Senate business, again simply by declaration. Executive branch appointments, nominees of all sorts - one or two, dozens, even hundreds at a time - can be held without a confirmation vote by the action of a single senator. That senator doesn't have to actually do this on the floor, in public view. It can be accomplished in secret, anonymously. Any and all Senate business can be halted until the senator responsible for the stoppage changes his or her mind. And yes, Murkowski can do this just as easily as Boxer. Any one of 100 senators can.

We've reached the point where the Republican minority has created itself as the ultimate power in our governance by denying the Senate the necessary 60 votes to conduct what would otherwise be normal business. For those who favor GOP policies and favor this procedural obstruction, they may say they represent the will of the American people. But senators do not represent the American people. Even those who love to appear on TV and pretend they do ought to know better. Senators represent only the people of the State from which they were elected. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, is not an American leader. He has never received a vote from any American outside the State of Kentucky. Yet many would agree he wields more power than Barack Obama who ran nationwide receiving the votes of 70 million Americans in all 50 states.

Does the all-powerful GOP Senate leadership represent a meaningful proportion of the American people? Or do they reflect the prescient John Jay? The GOP has its pick of senators from across the nation to be part of their leadership team. How many of the American people does the McConnell Team represent? The answer ... less than 6%!

While 180 million Americans - almost 60% of us all - live in the top 13 States, the Republicans selected a leadership team that overlooked 9 GOP senators from these most populated States. In addition to Leader McConnell, they chose as Whip, Sen. Kyle of Arizona (#14), Republican Conference Chair, Sen. Alexander of Tennessee (#17), Republican Policy Committee Chair, Sen. Thune of South Dakota (#48) and Policy Committee Co-Chair, Sen. Barrasso of Wyoming (#50... dead last in population!). This is the Republican Senate Leadership. At most they can claim to represent a total of 18 million Americans. That's less than half the population of California alone!

More shocking to the notion of "national leadership" is the actual vote for these Republican Senate leaders. All 5 combined received 3,535,492 votes. Four of them failed to get a million votes. In fact, 3 of them (Kyl, Thune and Barrasso) barely squeezed past the million-vote marker - with all their votes combined! Compare that with the votes for the Democratic Whip, Sen. Durbin (IL) who received 3,516,846 votes all by himself.

Those selected by the Republican leadership to be the Ranking Member, the leading GOP senator on each Senate Committee, show an equal disregard for national representation. On the 13 most important Senate Committees, the Ranking Members - all of them combined! - received only 11,299,119 votes. That's an average for each Republican Ranking Member of only 869,163 votes.

By comparison, just 2 of the 13 Democratic Committee Chairmen (Feinstein and Boxer) received 10,282,141 votes themselves. Add in any other single Democratic Party Committee Chairman (like Durbin with 3,516,846, or Schumer with 2,710,735, or Gillibrand with 2,519,806, or Kerry with 1,959,843) and ask yourself - Does the Republican senatorial leadership represent America? If you think that doesn't matter consider this: Sen. Murkowski, with all the powers of any senator, is also the Ranking Member on the Energy Committee. She's there because of about 100,000 voters. What does that mean in The Grand Scheme of American representative democracy? Well... in Ohio's 7th District State Board of Education race, a candidate named Tammy O'Brien won with 107,197 votes. That's a Board of Education position. In the US Senate, someone with fewer votes can -all by herself - bring all the legislative business of the federal government to a stop. She can prevent the ratification of international treaties. She can prevent a confirmation vote on any federal nominee including one for the Supreme Court. She can, unless the other side can muster 60 votes, stop the Senate from voting on... anything and everything. Would you - would anyone in their right mind - give that power and authority to Tammy O'Brien? Why then give it to anyone?

The solution to the Tyranny of the Senate is clear. Amend the constitution to eliminate the Senate. That's Change We Can Believe In.