Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Circus They Call the Senate

I've been hearing a faint buzz in national cemeteries all over our nation as the framers of the constitution continue to spin in their graves over the continued unraveling of one of the greatest Documents ever to come from the human mind. If anything, the mess that succeeding generations have made of the US Constitution shows that nothing, no matter how well done, is foolproof, provided you have enough fools in high places.

Originally, the Senate was an ingenious compromise to a big problem. The "larger" states, like Virginia, felt that they, due to their populations, should have greater representation in the legislative body. The "smaller" states, like New York (!), felt that all the states should be represented equally. From this dispute came the idea of a bicameral legislature, composed of two distinct bodies. The House of Representatives would be based on population, and more populous states would have more representation. The Senate, however, would answer the need for states to be treated equally, regardless of population. The Senate would be the place where cooler heads prevailed. Because of that, it would be trusted with things like making treaties, the examination of federal judges, and the approval of executive appointees. The Senate was seen as less "partisan," and not subject to the momentary whims of an often fickle electorate. The six year terms were designed to give them more time for deliberation, and less need for politics.

Most people don't realize that the framers of our Constitution did not intend for senators to be "elected." It was not until the imposition of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913 that senators were chosen by the electorate. Before that time, they were chosen by the states, usually by their legislatures. In the erosion of states' rights, that important measure was forgotten and forsaken. Americans had been given the unique opportunity to elect a representative from their own district; the Senate was reserved for important decisions made by, for lack of a better word, "statesmen."

In effect, popular election cheapened the Senate. What we currently have is a "House of Representatives" and a "House of Representatives Express," which has really become more of the same. There is so much duplication between the two that many people wonder why we don't just go to a unicameral legislature. After all, isn't it repetitive to have one chamber pass a bill, and then have to have the other one do exactly the same thing? The previous idea of a popularly elected body of representatives being counterbalanced by an upper chamber of statesman appointed by each state (or vice versa) was a major stroke of genius in the system of checks and balances.

It took nearly one hundred years for the "Upper Chamber" to finally devolve into the joke that it now is. Look at recent results. Minnesota is probably the most pitiful example, where it appears that a second-rate comedian is about to be awarded a six year term after a highly partisan battle and a seemingly highly partisan theft of votes after the fact that makes Louisiana politics look tame. Of course, the Senate has seen this before. In 1941, LBJ found out that a senate seat is not easily taken. He had won a special election, and even begun to celebrate, when suddenly, new "votes" began to come in. He was beaten by a clueless Pappy O'Daniel, then the governor of Texas. O'Daniel had not rigged the election. His enemies had. He was a known tee-totaler and a prohibitionist, and the liquor interests of Texas wanted him out of Austin and comfortably in Washington, so they awarded him a senate seat. LBJ learned his lesson, and seven years later, he stole an election himself. In one precinct in south Texas, all the people came in and voted in alphabetical order, even some of the dead ones. The partisan force behind Franken has refined the issues somewhat, but seems to have discovered entire precincts that weren't counted before, but voted purely Democratic.

Then there's Illinois, where the governor did what any good Illinois party boss would do -- tried to sell the senate seat. His idea was, "I did not work this hard to get this far so I could just sit here and serve the people. I'm ready to cash in!" This never would have been a problem with the original process. Oh, yes, governors can appoint senators, but I seriously doubt there would have been a vacancy to fill. Mr. Obama may turn out to be an excellent president, but he would not have been senate material if the state legislature had been thinking about it. Nor Hillary Clinton, who moved to New York just so she could be a senator. I realize that there have been many senators who became president. Lincoln lost to Douglas in an Illinois senatorial contest that was decided by the state legislature, and then Douglas lost to Lincoln in the next presidential election. If there had been a popular vote, Lincoln probably would have been an obscure Illinois senator in 1860, and Douglas might have been the president. Now that's a big change, and it shows what we may have missed in the last 100 years.

Then, of course, there's the need to fill Hillary's senate seat and, surprise of surprises, they are actually looking for someone from New York to do it! Obviously, since the governor is a Democrat, it will be a Democrat. I'm not sure if there are even any Republicans in New York. Some people tried to tell me Rudy Giuliani is one, but I think they were probably joking. If the Senate is a state matter, decided by a state legislature, then the procedure is to look for a capable, competent, experienced statesman/woman. However, the public, not only in New York, is frothing at the mouth. It's a chance to get another Kennedy!!! Caroline Kennedy, who used to have another last name until this senate seat came up, has already been crowned by the public. After all, she's JFK's daughter, so she must be a good senator. One NY politician even made the asinine comment that "she has the DNA to be a senator."

Spin, forefathers, spin. Now we're talking "royal line" and titles of nobility. Now political leadership is inherited. King George is back. I recently listened to her first "campaign" speech, and I have to say, she's probably a nice person, and good at whatever she has been doing. But she has no vision, no speaking skills, you know, uh, you only, you know, have to listen, you know, for, uh, a minute, to, you know, realize that. But forget that: she has DNA!

The framers of our Constitution, in their wisdom and foresight, knew that Americans would need one big ugly Circus Maximus, so they gave us the House of Representatives. Little did they realize that the American people would demand a two-ring circus, so a hundred years ago they turned the Senate into one, too. And while we're at it, we need to note that no circus is complete without three rings, so we have also added the Executive Branch to the mixture, making the road to the White House a multibillion dollar, tiring, boring, two-year trek of ineffective and unsatisfying primaries that lead to a meaningless convention/coronation. And to boot, most Americans would like to just do away with electoral votes and make it an across the board national popularity contest.

Perhaps the best thing we could do for our nation would be to restore the Senate to the position that the Framers intended. I know we couldn't do it overnight, but we could "grandfather" those who are in the Senate right now, let them continue to run their expensive campaigns. But each time a senator retires or is defeated in an election, we could say "last one," and turn the next one to the state legislatures.

"Oh," you might say, "but popular elections give us the senators the people want." I really have a hard time believing that Al Franken could make a good page, much less a senator. Does Minnesota really deserve Al Franken, or even his worthy opponent? If state legislatures regained what was once a constitutional power, if it were possible to do it today, in the next 24 hours, our Senate would see a sudden, radical improvement. We must face it: popular election does not produce the best leaders. Remember Nixon? Biggest popular win in history, up to that time. Was Hillary really the best New York could do? Then there's Idaho and Alaska; don't forget Florida.

You want to send a clown to Washington? Our forefathers gave us the House for that. We should return the Senate to its original dignity. It would help us all out.

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