The Senate: 100 and Counting

The Senate: 100 and Counting

The greatest deliberative body in the world. That’s how the United States Senate has been described, a group portrait that’s an exercise in aspirational hyperbole, to my mind.

Then there’s this one: “[The Senate] is a sanctuary; a citadel of law, of order, and of liberty; and it is here–it is here, in this exalted refuge; here, if anywhere, will resistance be made to the storms of political frenzy and the silent arts of corruption; and if The Constitution be destined ever to perish by the sacrilegious hands of the demagogue or the usurper, which God avert, its expiring agonies will be witnesses on this floor.” Before we get all misty-eyed, that’s a quote from Aaron Burr, in 1805. (Of course, that’s before he was accused of treason; remember, he’d been Jefferson’s vice president.)

The Senate has always worn a civilized veneer to cover its rather savage body. Now, it is about to try Donald J. Trump for the second time–and doubtless, for the second time, to acquit him.

In 1872, the following probably apocryphal story began to circulate: Jefferson, returning home from France, was arguing with Washington at the breakfast-table for having agreed to a second (as Jefferson thought) unnecessary legislative chamber. In actuality, Jefferson was predisposed toward a bicameral legislature.

“Why,” asked Washington, “did you just now pour coffee into your saucer, before drinking?”

“To cool it,” replied Jefferson, “my throat is not made of brass.”

“Even so,” answered Washington, “we pour our legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.” More aspirational thinking.

I recently made a quixotic effort to clarify and demystify the arcane workings of the U.S. Senate on my podcast, in a little over 30 gallant minutes. Some of it is hilarious, surreal, Kabuki theater. You can listen here. It’s all too through-the-looking-glass true.

Senate critics argue that the current system is broken, due to partisan paralysis and suffocating rules. You think? For instance, all powerful seniority is a myth, but one that, like Britannia, rules the waves. In fact, The Constitution mandates relatively few duties for the U.S. Senate, yet unspoken and unwritten rules, regulations, traditions, precedents, customs, “but in practice’s” and other opaque rituals dominate with winks, smiles, and enormous clout. Many if not most are blatantly discriminatory.

For example, the filibuster is frequently debated. We’re all familiar with the idealistic filibuster conducted by actor Jimmy Stewart, in Frank Capra’s classic film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” but there have been infamous filibusters in the real-life Senate, particularly useful to Southern senators who sought to block civil rights legislation, including anti-lynching legislation, until cloture was invoked after a 60-day filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (In 1975 the Senate reduced the number of votes required for cloture from two-thirds to three-fifths, or 60 of the current 100 senators.) The record for the longest individual speech goes to South Carolina’s J. Strom Thurmond who filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

The Constitution specifies a 50 percent threshold to pass legislation, and many feel the de facto three-fifths threshold for general legislation prevents beneficial laws from passing. (The so-called nuclear option was exercised by both parties in the 2010s to eliminate the filibuster for confirmations.) Supporters of the filibuster claim it’s a protection for minority views, a check against single-party rule (of the presidency and House and Senate majorities). True. Yet representation in the Senate itself is not proportional to population; it skews toward “minority rule.” Even for the moment leaving aside the issues of voter suppression and gerrymandering, small states are disproportionately European-American, so African Americans have only 75 percent of their proportionate voting power in the Senate; Latinx Americans just 55 percent. The 4 million Americans with no Senate representation whatsoever (in the District of Columbia and U.S. territories) are heavily African and Latinx. Admitting Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico as states (both have more residents than the smallest states) would reduce this inequity.

Then there’s the membership itself. In 1870, Hiram Revels, a Republican from Mississippi, became the first African American to serve in the United States Senate–during the tragically brief hour of Reconstruction. Five years later, Blanche K. Bruce of Mississippi (a man) took the oath of office. It would be almost another hundred years, 1967, before Edward Brooke of Massachusetts followed them. Carol Moseley Braun broke through in 1993, becoming the first African American woman to serve. In 2021 Raphael Warnock of Georgia won a run-off election. This brought the total of African American senators today to 11.

Out of 100.

For its first 130 years, the Senate was entirely male. The first woman senator was Rebecca Latimer Felton of Georgia, appointed for a single day in 1922. Margaret Chase Smith was the first woman to serve in both the House and then later in the Senate, beginning in 1949. In 1978, Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas was the first woman elected to a full term without her husband having previously served in Congress. The tokenism began to change after the 1992 Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas Hearings. In addition to Barbara Mikulski, reelected, four women broke senatorial ground: Washington State’s Patty Murray, Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, and Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both of California. Bathrooms for women on the Senate Chamber level were first provided as late as 1992. Women weren’t allowed to wear pants until 1993, when Mikulski and Moseley Braun did so in defiance. As of January 2021, there are 24 women (16 Democrats and 8 Republicans) senators.

Out of 100.

It’s both easy and difficult, as well as painful, to satirize the United States Senate. Easy because its procedures are in fact convoluted, deliberately unstated and thus manipulative, staggeringly nontransparent–one could say opaque–and in some cases farcical. Certainly many senators are farcical, not to speak of dangerously corrupt (50 percent of currently sitting senators are millionaires). But difficult and painful because, though not the greatest deliberative body in the world, it does qualify as one of them. It stumbles and falls and bashes its face, but it does try. During its tenure the populace has in fact grown, matured, become more . . . civilized. The Senate has seen some courageous individuals along with the scoundrels. But it deserves modernization and cries out for reform.

Personally, I long for the day when our general U.S. population expresses concern about the miniscule and further dwindling numbers of straight white wealthy elderly males in the United States Senate. This would be because of the 104 (don’t forget Washington DC and Puerto Rico) people of color, 60 percent women, who grace those chambers. Now that will be a good day indeed.