Senate: Same Root as 'Senile'


Washington. -- The Senate was part of the Founders' plan to provide republican remedies for problems to which republics are prey. In a republic, the people are sovereign, but the immediate desires of the people can conflict with the long-term interests of the republic.

The Senate was designed to facilitate the reconciliation of those desires and interests. Thus it reflects the Founders' distrust of unmediated majority rule. But today the Senate is a far cry from what the Founders intended, and what some liberals suddenly want it to be.

Since last November's elections the House has acted with the sort of dispatch the Senate disdains. That dispatch has alarmed many liberals who not long ago praised themselves as "agents of change" but who now think change is not so swell.

Now they are praising the Founders' wisdom in providing the Senate as an impediment to mob, meaning Republican, rule. The trouble with their reverence is that today's "upper chamber" no longer has the attributes that would enhance its moral authority to do what liberals want, which is to treat the House and its works as inherently lower.

From the first, the Senate had a grand notion of itself. When President Washington came onto the Senate floor trailing clouds of glory and his secretary of war, hoping to use the Senate as a kind of privy council to discuss some Indian treaties, the Senate starchily told him it would discuss the matter without him present, and he left in a huff. Until 1816 the Senate had only four standing committees, all dealing with housekeeping matters, because it was not much concerned with originating legislation. It was to perform the educative function of "refining" and "enlarging" public opinion though deliberation.

The Founders intended the Senate's form to help achieve that end. The Senate would be smaller than the House, senators' terms would be longer than representatives' terms, and the election of senators by state legislatures would encourage senatorial independence by placing senators at some distance from their somewhat obscured constituencies. These factors were supposed to conduce to what Madison called "cool and deliberate" reflection by a Senate that "might seasonably interpose against impetuous counsels."

But for 80 years now there has been direct election of senators who, almost as much as House members, are in a constant campaign mode. The Senate is awfully like the House, only more full of itself.

In the forthcoming 1996 edition of his Almanac of American Politics, Michael Barone writes:

"The Senate today is surely not 'the greatest deliberative body in the world,' as it likes to style itself; it is very seldom deliberative, and is often scarcely a body at all. This is a legislature where it is every member for him or herself, where the whole is equal to a fair lot less than the sum of its parts, where it is far easier to kill someone else's initiative than it is to get one going."

Simply as a blocking institution, the Senate may appear to be like the institution the Founders had in mind. But appearances can be, and in this case are, deceiving.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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