Abandoning the Senate’s Role in our Constitutional Framework

The Senate is meant to be the more deliberative body in Congress. Although columnist George Will now calls the filibuster a “coup against the Constitution,” ten years ago he was praising it, writing that “Democracy is trivialized when reduced to simple majoritarianism” and that the filibuster was the result of “caution that respects the right of an intense minority to put sand in the gears of government.” In the current climate, where one party controls all the branches of the federal government, the system of checks and balances created by the Framers is especially important.

As an editorial in The Chicago Tribune noted on May 27, 2003, “When Thomas Jefferson asked George Washington why he favored creating a Senate, Washington replied, ‘Why did you pour that coffee into your saucer?’ Jefferson said he wanted to cool it. ‘Even so,’ answered Washington, ‘we pour legislation into the saucer to cool it.’” The editorial continued, “The filibuster fits perfectly with that conception of the Senate. This device has never been popular among those who favor speed, efficiency and pure democracy in legislative matters. But it has been one of many useful restraints that help to prevent hasty government action based on a consensus that may prove transient. Republicans should be the last people to suggest we need fewer of those.”

The Senate responsibility that is being called into question is its ‘advise and consent’ role, with respect to presidential appointments. Herman Schwartz commented in the April 28, 2003 edition of Insight Magazine that, “President Bush has every right to propose whomever he wishes. But he can only propose. The Senate disposes. It is especially important that the system the Framers so painstakingly designed function properly with respect to lifetime appointments to the third independent branch of government. The Democrats are not only acting fairly, they are acting in the way they must if they are to fulfill their constitutional duty.”

The Detroit Free Press took a similar position in an editorial published on January 21, 2003, “Senate Democrats need to be equally strong in asserting their advice-and-consent privileges. Presidents are allowed to nominate whomever they want. The Senate is there to keep things in check when the executive branch reaches too far.”

Ellen Goodman explains in the May 15, 2003 Boston Globe, “The Constitution tells the Senate to advise and consent. It says nothing about consenting by a simple majority or a super majority… All in all, there’s something worse than fighting over judicial nominees. It’s letting them into a lifetime job without a fight.”

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