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Olympia Snowe departs with pious baloney

She is attempting to align her frustrations with today’s Senate with a worshipful and erroneous version of the intentions of the framers of the Constitution.

Senator Olympia Snowe speaks to reporters during a news conference

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, shocked Washington by denouncing the partisan polarization of Congress and backed her words by announcing her retirement from a Senate seat she could easily have retained. Over the weekend, she explained her reasons in a Washington Post Op Ed (but I’m linking to the version that ran on Reader Supported News because the look on her face in the mugshot that ran with that one captures a woman who is visibly tired, sad and fed up).

Of course, Snowe knows volumes more than I do about what’s wrong with Washington in general and the Senate in particular. But I was aghast at the way she presents the issue in this piece — especially her effort to align her frustrations with today’s Senate with a simultaneously worshipful and erroneous version of the intentions of the framers of the Constitution. Here’s Snowe:

Simply put, the Senate is not living up to what the Founding Fathers envisioned.

During the Federal Convention of 1787, James Madison wrote in his Notes of  Debates that ‘the use of the Senate is to consist in its proceedings with more coolness, with more system, and with more wisdom, than the popular branch.’ Indeed, the Founding Fathers intended the Senate to serve as an institutional check that ensures all voices are heard and considered, because while our constitutional democracy is premised on majority rule, it is also grounded in a commitment to minority rights.

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Yet more than 200 years later, the greatest deliberative body in human history is not living up to its billing. The Senate of today routinely jettisons regular order, as evidenced by the body’s failure to pass a budget for more than 1,000 days; serially legislates by political brinkmanship, as demonstrated by the debt-ceiling debacle of August that should have been addressed the previous January; and habitually eschews full debate and an open amendment process in favor of competing, up-or-down, take-it-or-leave-it proposals. We witnessed this again in December with votes on two separate proposals for a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.

As Ronald Brownstein recently observed in National Journal, Congress is becoming more like a parliamentary system — where everyone simply votes with their party and those in charge employ every possible tactic to block the other side. But that is not what America is all about, and it’s not what the Founders intended. In fact, the Senate’s requirement of a supermajority to pass significant legislation encourages its members to work in a bipartisan fashion.

There’s a lot of “pious baloney” packed in there. Let’s start with the last one first. The “supermajority requirement” to which Snowe refers is the filibuster rule, which enables 41 senators to prevent a final vote on a bill even if it has the support of the other 59, has passed the House and  would be signed by the president. As filibuster defenders often do, Snowe strongly implies that the filibuster is a gift from the framers, which it isn’t.  It is merely a Senate rule, created by accident, and if the Senate wanted to get rid of it, there is no constitutional barrier.

The filibuster

Snowe implies that the filibuster is designed to force bipartisan compromise. Rubbish. It wasn’t designed at all, but the way it functions in today’s Senate facilitates the very behavior that Snowe decries in the rest of the piece.

Snowe enlists James Madison’s notes from the Constitutional Convention which suggest that the Senate was meant to be wiser than the House and serve as a check on “the more popular branch.” This is, of course, a reference to the fact that the framers did not intend for the Senate to be directly elected but, rather, buffered from direct concern for the support of the unwashed. The mostly wealthy and educated framers were leery of too much democracy, which is why of the four power centers that they created (House, Senate, president, Supreme Court) only the House was to be directly elected.

Perhaps there’s wisdom in limiting the direct influence of the voters on national policy, but I’m not sure Snowe means to celebrate that view. It seems she just wanted to get Madison into the piece and imply that he would be on her side.

Of course, the framers did not intend to encourage bipartisanship, since they envisioned a nation that would not have political parties (although parties started forming before the ink was dry on the framers’ work). To me, the fact that the framers were imagining a permanently non-partisan (not bipartisan – non-partisan) political system should be among the biggest deterrents to those who want to invoke the framers’ “intentions” to solve problems in a world that never resembled their vision.

The parliamentary system

Lastly, Snowe invokes the parliamentary system as a foil, a system where everyone votes the party line “and those in charge employ every possible tactic to block the other side.” I hope she wasn’t just trying to play the let’s-not-be-like-a-bunch-of-sissified-Europeans card, but her analysis is seriously flawed.

In general, a parliamentary system has one powerful legislative house and a chief executive who is both a member of the House and the leader of the majority party (or majority coalition). This system makes it much more likely that the majority will rule and be able to pass its bills. The parliament is entirely elected at one time (unlike our system in which the Senate consists of a class elected two years ago, another four years ago, and another six) which actually (contrary to the impression Snowe suggests) means that prime ministers are much more likely to enact the legislative agenda on which they were elected than are U.S. presidents.

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Don’t blame (or praise) the framers for the filibuster, Sen. Snowe. However, the founders are responsible for  the division-of-powers and staggered-elections and multiple-coequal-houses system they designed, which is certainly a big part of the reason for Washington’s dysfunction.

As a small (but not senatorial) courtesy, I’ll give Snowe the last word, from her op-ed:

But whenever Americans have set our minds to tackling enormous problems, we have met with tremendous success. And I am convinced that, if the people of our nation raise their collective voices, we can effect a renewal of the art of legislating — and restore the luster of a Senate that still has the potential of achieving monumental solutions to our nation’s most urgent challenges. I look forward to helping the country raise those voices to support the Senate returning to its deserved status and stature — but from outside the institution.