Alex Massie

Is the United States Senate Broken?

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In one sense, yes it is. The Senate may be the world's most exasperating deliberative body. As with it's Roman counterpart there's a growing sense that the Senate has outlived its usefulness, that it can no longer function effectively and that there's no reason to suppose anything will change for the better. In Washington folk connected to the House of Representatives point out that their enemy is the Senate, not the opposition party.

That's what happens when you have a Republic, not a Democracy. And, as George Packer's excellent New Yorker article amply demonstrates, the Senate is a ridiculous, infuriating place filled with puffed-up mediocrities unfit to inhabit offices once filled by rather more illustrious men. But Packer's conclusion also hints at another problem, one he doesn't consider: centralisation. Here's how he ends his piece:

The two lasting achievements of this Senate, financial regulation and health care, required a year and a half of legislative warfare that nearly destroyed the body. They depended on a set of circumstances—a large majority of Democrats, a charismatic President with an electoral mandate, and a national crisis—that will not last long or be repeated anytime soon. Two days after financial reform became law, Harry Reid announced that the Senate would not take up comprehensive energy-reform legislation for the rest of the year. And so climate change joined immigration, job creation, food safety, pilot training, veterans’ care, campaign finance, transportation security, labor law, mine safety, wildfire management, and scores of executive and judicial appointments on the list of matters that the world’s greatest deliberative body is incapable of addressing. Already, you can feel the Senate slipping back into stagnant waters.

David Frum's view

Take a look at Packer's list of abandoned issues, however, and you might find youself wondering, at least initially, why issues such as wildfire manafement, mine safety and so on even need to be considered at the national level. Others, such as new food safety legislation or pilot training or, for that matter, yet another round of campaign finance legislation hardly seem matters of pressing importance. But in Washington there's always more that could be done or another interested party agitating for the field to be tilted in their favour.

But that's an inevitable consequence of trying to pass legislation for an entire continent. When you try and pass a bill that covers 50 states and 300 million people you can't avoid the awkward compromises and messy trade-offs that produce bills no-one's terribly happy with but a less than gruntled majority can just about live with. No wonder Washington's peculiar combination of insane optimism and mendacious special pleading breeds a certain kind of sour fatalism that leaves everyone hot, frustrated and disillusioned.

Hopping across the atlantic, we can compare Washington with Brussels. There are plenty of bright young progressives (Messrs Klein and Yglesias being two such examples) who argue that europe needs to do more collectively (especially in the fields of economics, regulation and foreign policy) and, thus, Brussels needs more power, not less and must, consequently, become a little more like Washington. (Albeit a capital that is even less democratic or accountable than DC). But the same problems arise whenever you try and organise matters across an entire continent. There comes a point at which size ceases to scale.

In other words, the extent to which Washington is "broken" is a warning to the european "project". (You could, I admit, make the argument in reverse too and this is exactly what euro-enthusiasts do.) Certainly, the differences between european countries are greater than the differences between American states but even in the latter case legislating for Vermont and Texas is a supremely ambitious undertaking. 

Finally, and in a British context, enthusiasts for a fully elected House of Lords should consider the example of the United States Senate and ask themselves whether they really want to go down this route. True, an elected Lords might not be quite so encrusted with seemingly out-dated procedures but it will, inevitably I suggest, become a place which moves from revising government legislation to obstructing it. I'm more comfortable with that kind of obstructionism than many - and almost certainly more comfortable with it than many of those wanting "democracy" introduced to the upper house - but it's something that bears pondering.

That is, the strength of the House of Lords as it is presently constituted is built upon the weakness of its mandate; give it greater legitimacy and you will strengthen the institution and make it a competitor with rather than a complement to the Commons. An undemocratic Lords facilitates a democratic Commons. (Perhaps the Americans should return to an indirectly elected Senate? Repeal the 17th Amendment!)

If you were starting now, you probably wouldn't build either the US Senate or the House of Lords in the fashion they currently exist. But, despite their idiosyncracies and short-comings, despite their illogical formats and conventions they fulfill useful roles. If both are "broken" they are broken in ways that are actually quite useful. Which is one reason, among many, why reforming either will be difficult and, in the end, likely to produce as many new problems as are solved by the reforms themselves. The same thing might be said of Brussels. Which is, again, an argument for subsidiarity/states rights/localism and all the rest of it.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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