The decline and fall of the U.S. Senate

     Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., signals a thumbs-up as he leaves the chamber after he led the GOP majority to change Senate rules and lower the vote threshold for Supreme Court nominees from 60 votes to a simple majority in order to advance Neil Gorsuch to a confirmation vote. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

    Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., signals a thumbs-up as he leaves the chamber after he led the GOP majority to change Senate rules and lower the vote threshold for Supreme Court nominees from 60 votes to a simple majority in order to advance Neil Gorsuch to a confirmation vote. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

    The U.S. Senate, long ballyhooed as “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” conceived by the Founders as a bipartisan bulwark against partisan passions, died last Friday after a long illness at the age of 228.

    I was reminded of its demise, a true American tragedy, when I saw the video of Neil Gorsuch taking the oath yesterday in the Rose Garden, completing the Republican theft of Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court seat. The Founders, who never envisioned that the Senate would partake in such a naked partisan power play, are surely spinning in their graves.

    Gorsuch’s ascent, as you’ll recall, was greased by Mitch McConnell’s decision to blow up the longstanding Senate rule that essentially required 60 votes for confirmation. Gorsuch got the seat with a simple majority of Republican votes. The next rule to go is the longstanding Senate rule that lets the minority party stall legislation until 60 votes are found to break its filibuster. If or when that happens (it’s only a matter of when), the Senate will be just like the House — a place ruled solely by majority muscle.

    I doubt that many Americans care much about parliamentary procedures in faraway Washington; as a topic of conversation today, the decline and fall of the Senate is trumped by the video of a paying customer being dragged down the aisle of a United Airlines plane. But what’s happening in the chamber is truly, in the words of ex-Bush speechwriter Matt Latimer, a “humiliating and consequential disaster,” fresh proof that “Congress is completely broken and seemingly incapable of governance.”

    The whole point of the Senate was to encourage compromise, to compel its members to reach across the aisle and forge bipartisan agreement. If you don’t need 60 votes anymore — if instead all you need, to OK judges and perhaps pass legislation, are the majority party’s members — then all of the minority’s leverage, all of the chamber’s checks and balances, are vaporized. That’s not how the Founders saw the Senate.

    Pundits love the story about how George Washington supposedly told Thomas Jefferson that when the House passes hot legislation to satisfy partisan urges, “the senatorial saucer” is designed to cool it. But that story may well be apocryphal. What we do know is that government architect James Madison envisioned a chamber that would resist “the impulse of sudden and violent passions” and become “an anchor against popular fluctuations.” With senators serving six-year terms, freed up from constant electoral pressure, the Senate would be “sufficiently respectable for its wisdom and virtue.”

    Wisdom and virtue … Write your own punchline.

    What happened last Friday, when Gorsuch was muscled into Garland’s high court seat, was the Senate’s most definitive step into the partisan swamp that has engulfed our system of government. But the chamber’s illness has grown more actute with each passing decade, becoming increasingly ideological and dysfunctional. Instead of acting as a brake on partisan passions, it has come to mirror them.

    The six-year term no longer protects senators from electoral pressure. They spend their weekends at fundraisers, to keep pace with the relentless money chase. They are increasingly beholden to the ideological activists who equate compromise with selling out. They are hostage to the 24/7 new cycle. And moderate centrists have basically become extinct. Senate historian Don Ritchie has pointed out that half a century ago, “there were as many Eisenhower Republicans as Goldwater Republicans. There were more liberal Democrats but also a sizeable number of conservative Democrats. There was never a party-line vote on anything.” Instead, “coalitions” were built across party lines.

    Today we have senators fighting each other via their Twitter feeds, and refusing even to socialize with members of the other party (cross-party friendships used to be the norm). And the most consequential result of McConnell’s decision to kill the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees is what it portends for the future composition of the court. From now on, the majority party can simply OK the most ideologically extreme judges, with no need to round up any bipartisan votes. And so the poisons in our body politic may well imperil the top outpost of the judiciary.

    As Yale law professor Abbe R. Gluck warns, “A Supreme Court made up of extremists — on either side — is not good for the country. Neither is a Congress in which moderates and minority voices have little power. Both will lead to a further erosion of faith in the legitimacy of our government.”

    It’s perversely amusing to read what foreign observers used to say about the U.S. Senate. Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th-century French commentator, gushed that “the Senate contains within its small space a large proportion of the celebrated men of America.” Sir Henry Maine, a British historian in the Victorian era, lauded the Senate as “the only thoroughly successful institution which has been established since the tide of modern democracy began to run.”

    How’s that working out these days?

    During the past 24 hours, residents of Kansas’ Fourth Congressional District have picked up their ringing phones and heard the voice of Donald Trump:

    “Republican Ron Estes needs your vote and needs it badly …. Our country needs help. Ron is going to be helping us, big league …. This is an important election. There’s really few very much more important …”

    It goes on longer than that; I’ll spare you his eloquence. But why would Trump need to make a robocall in the first place? And send Ted Cruz to the district, which is staging a special election today to fill the House seat vacated by new CIA chief Mike Pompeo? And why is the national GOP feverishly pumping money into a district that’s ruby-red, that voted heavily for Pompeo and Trump last November?

    Because they’re spooked that Republican candidate Estes will notch an anemic win and suggest that Trump and the GOP are shaky even in a place like Kansas. We shall soon see.

    Back to the news I mentioned earlier:

    It was clearly the guy’s seat, he had it fair and square, the guy was going places … but they still came and dragged him away and gave the seat to somebody else.

    That was no way to treat Merrick Garland.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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