CongressLine: SPQR

The founders of the American Republic were very keen on classical history, particularly Greek and Roman institutions. One chamber of Congress that clearly has its origins in the founder’s interest in antiquity it is the Senate. During the Roman Republic, the Senate was one of the two organs of the Republic, the other being the People (hence: SPQR or Senate and the People of Rome). The Roman Senate is certainly one of the most significant legislative chambers in history and its descendant, the U.S. Senate, has definitely taken up the mantle and is one of the premier legislative bodies in the world today. I am not sure about the intent of the creators of the American Republic in regards to the Senate, but I am interested in how the Senate has risen to its current prominence.

My bow to the Roman Senate as a comparison to the U.S. Senate does not mean they are identical, but there are similarities. Ironically, one of the factors that make the Senate more distinct is its size, 100 members. The Roman Senate was three times larger. The make up of the two bodies is not that different. Much (though not all) of the Roman Senate was made up of the landed aristocracy. The US does not have such a defined aristocracy, but if we did, the current and past make up of the body, would probably be similar. As of last year, there were 46 millionaires in the Senate.

The Senate, of course, is one of the two separate and independent chambers of Congress. Both chambers need to pass any measure before it can be sent to the president and become law; one body does not hold any special authority over the other. But the Senate has evolved into more prominence and there are a number of reasons why this is so.

The Senate originally (until 1913 and the 17th Amendment) was not popularly elected but rather selected by the individual state legislatures. The change from selection to popular election was the first major change; it converted a very sleepy chamber of usually provincial party machine bosses into a chamber of more widely recognized members.

The Senate has some additional roles that can lend luster to their deliberations. It is the only chamber charged to ratify treaties and approve Presidential appointments to the executive agencies, courts and the armed forces. When a new Supreme Court justice is named, all eyes turn to the Senate, which has to ratify the appointment. Interestingly, while the Senate needs to ratify treaties before they can be enforced, the House usually has to pass judgment on enabling legislation for the treaty although that is not as glamorous as actually ratifying a treaty.

The House, however, was designed as a citadel of democracy (as opposed to the state aristocracy in the Senate). One of the few unique powers reserved for the House is the requirement for it to originate tax and appropriations measures, a provision that is usually mitigated by procedural maneuvers in the Senate.

The Senate is helped by its size. Two Senators from each state, no matter what the size. Rhode Island and California each have two senators. The House of Representatives has 435 members plus assorted delegates from territories. In the House, the number of representatives is apportioned by the size of the state: New York has 29 representatives and South Dakota has only one. In reality however, the rules of the House overcompensate for problems caused by the large size and create strong majority party dominance. The Senate has no such rules and in fact has strong minority rights, which at times seem to mitigate the advantages of a smaller size.

A somewhat stronger element helping the Senate is the term of office. Senators are elected to office for six-year terms. This affords a greater sense of permanency and Senators are not always scrambling to get re-elected every two years like House members. But even this is minimized somewhat since many House districts are very safe districts, sometime with little or no opposition. Statewide Senate races can at least have a semblance of competition. Also, Senators are frequently trying to gain additional seats for their party, so campaign factors are still quite prevalent in the Senate.

A fourth factor is the statewide prominence of a Senator. A Senator represents an entire state, not just a small district within a state. Statewide prominence provides more gravitas and definitely more media clout. Senators frequently come from the ranks of Governors; House Representatives are in a harder position to run for Governor (though they certainly try to do so). Representatives move up to the Senate: it is extremely rare to see a Senator move to the House.

Another factor is the nature of debate. House members speak for very proscribed time periods, usually measured in minutes and seconds. Senators do not have such concerns; they can wax on for as long a necessary, providing more feed for television coverage and more nuanced and congenial speeches. House addresses are either more hysterical or more pedestrian. They just do not have the time for more seasoned addresses on the topics of the day.

The real difficulty in, and ironically the main reason for, the Senate’s prominence are its arcane and frustrating rules. There are normally no time restrictions for speaking and normally no restrictions on floor amendments. There are mechanisms that allow for members to hold legislation and keep it from debate and require a supermajority to get a bill to a vote on the floor. This would seem to restrict its effectiveness, but in reality it doesn’t. It maximizes it.

By including strong individual and minority privileges the Senate assures that it can garner a broader acceptance of legislative actions than can happen in the House. Some minority members are usually required to get a bill passed in the Senate, so at least there will be some bi-partisan agreement. Sure bills are not robust or dramatic, but they have a broader base of agreement. In the majoritarian House, sometimes I wonder why minority members even bother to show up. If you are not in the majority, your ability to influence legislation lies in what you can say on the floor in a certain number of minutes and the hope that that the majority party has some dissenting members in their ranks.

Lately, this has been a source of extreme frustration for people wanting to institute major changes, such as getting out of Iraq or mandating reductions in greenhouse gases causing climate change. But these are controversial issues, so while they may pass with a majority in the House, the Senate requires more than that. In the end, change happens more slowly and dissenting groups are not completely steamrolled. This interesting aspect of the US Senate was the principle role of the old Roman Senate, to mitigate the excesses of the majority (the mob in the street).

It used to be considered a severe liability to run for the Presidency directly from the U.S. Senate, but ths year practically all the candidates are sitting Senators. What has changed? The Senate has usually been an ideal place to start a Presidential run. This year is a good illustration, perhaps, because for the first time since 1928, a President and Vice President are not in the race, and cannot detract from the allure of the Senate.

Many democracies have upper chambers; the US Senate however is the most powerful. Some maintain a state or provincial role for selection of Senators. The United Kingdom has greatly reduced the role the old House of Lords, and most other countries select their executive from the ranks of the lower house. In the U.S,, Senators are more likely to move to the White House than members of the House, something that is a strong possibility in January 2009.