Friday, March 05, 2010




By Jack Random

Since the State of the Union Address President Obama has engaged his opposition, including members of his own party, and the only thing he has proven is what we already knew: He is the smartest man in the room. Any room. Certainly any room crowded with posturing and pontificating members of the United States Senate.

In the most recent encounter, a summit on health care, he asked of the opposition only one thing: that they should come without a list of talking points. After careful consideration and according to insider reports considerable rehearsal, the party of opposition came with exactly that. Over seven painful hours of repetitive rhetoric the esteemed Senators could not even vary the phrasing. We need to scrap the bill. We need to start over with a clean sheet of paper. We cannot support a government takeover. On and on.

It was all theater and bad theater at that. It was like watching a seven-hour version of Samuel Beckett’s classic existential play Waiting for Godot. Godot is the spirit of bipartisanship and by now even the president must know Godot never comes.

The government is broken, our democracy in shambles, and healthcare reform (such as it is) has been held hostage for a year while another 45,000 Americans have died for lack of health insurance. I do not know the validity of that oft-sited estimate but I do know this: Lives are at stake and the protocol of the Senate was not worth a single life.

President Obama lost the high ground of the healthcare debate when he placed the value of Senatorial rules and the illusion of bipartisanship over the health and safety of the people he was sworn to protect.

Now we are confronted with the possibility of a watered down healthcare package passing through budget reconciliation and the Republicans are crying foul. For the first year of the Obama presidency they shamelessly abused the power of the filibuster to obstruct all major legislation and now they cry foul.

Most shameful of all is Senator Orrin Hatch who attacked the invocation of reconciliation with the claim that it would be “an assault to the democratic process.”

The Senator has it backwards. The invocation of the filibuster to obstruct the will of the people and the majority of their representatives is an assault on democracy itself. Senators can drone on as long as they wish about the rights of the minority but there is no minority in the United States Senate worth protecting. It is an elitist club, a club of millionaires, and its insistence on the right to endless debate in order to prevent a majority vote is a power grab and an affront to the constitution which grants them no such power.

The American system of government was modeled on the British Parliament. In place of the King we have a president. In place of the Commons we established Congress. And in place of the House of Lords we established the United States Senate.

The House of Lords was originally composed of the British Aristocracy. It was an unelected body of wealthy, privileged individuals, some of whom were appointed by the King and some who were chosen by hereditary succession. They were born to power and they held the right of veto over all legislation passed by the House of Commons.

As the British system embraced the principles of democratic rule it was inevitable that the power of the Lords would stand in the way. It was the antithesis of democracy. It was designed to protect the interests of the elite by obstructing the will of the people.

The power of the House of Lords came under assault in 1906 when the Liberal Party took control of the Commons in a landslide election. It was clear that the legislative mandate for which ministers of parliament were elected (Irish home rule and social reform) could not be enacted without first curtailing the power of the Lords.

It was a long hard battle against entrenched interests and in fact the process remains to be completed today but the House of Lords is only a shadow of the institution it once was. The Lords still exists but like the monarchy itself it is fundamentally a symbol, a figurehead, a remembrance of a time when Kings and Queens held absolute sway over the fate of nations. The Lords still have some measure of power but should they abuse it they are keenly aware that the power of democracy will once again rise up to put them in their rightful place.

What British democracy confronted at the beginning of the last century is analogous to what American democracy confronts today. For while we now elect members of the Senate (the 17th Amendment) it remains undeniably the least representative and therefore the most anti-democratic institution in American government. Because of its power to obstruct legislation it attracts powerful interests so that every Senator requires more and more millions of dollars to finance an election campaign. Promises are made and debts are paid.

The problem with American government is not the men and women who fill the seats of the Senate per se. It is the institution itself.

Leave alone the problem of disproportionate representation [1]. Stand aside the problem of undue corporate influence, a problem compounded by the unconscionable ruling of our corporate Supreme Court. These are flaws that must be rectified if we are to achieve a more perfect union and a more functional government but the immediate problem we must address is the power grab of the Senatorial filibuster.

There is no man or woman in this or any other nation who believes in democracy yet will rise in defense of granting a minority in any deliberative body the absolute power of obstruction. Conversely, any man or woman who supports the filibuster rule as it now operates cannot claim to believe in democracy.

We as a nation have far too many pressing matters to allow this display of mindless power manipulations and political posturing to continue ad nauseum.

I do not propose the abolition of the Senate. It has its role. Our system works best when the Senate performs in earnest its duties as prescribed in the constitution. Moreover, it can produce great leaders and prepare them to ascend to the presidency. But the Senate is not a marble monument. It is neither sacred nor strictly speaking necessary. It must adapt and change. It must embrace the democratic ideal and not seek to thwart it. It must become more democratic and less elitist.

It must sacrifice the power of the minority to obstruct the business of the nation. If it does not it will inevitably find itself under assault like the British House of Lords and with good cause.

The British did not abolish the House of Lords but they could have and might have if the Lords themselves did not recognize that the age of aristocracy is over.


[1] Even Alexander Hamilton, the champion of all modern conservatives, denounced the disproportionate representation of the US Senate: “It is not in human nature that Virginia and the large States should consent to it, or if they did that they should long abide by it. It shocks too much the ideas of Justice, and every human feeling. Bad principles in a Government though slow are sure in their operation and will gradually destroy it.”

From “The Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787” by James Madison.


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