Norman Ornstein: ‘Fix The Senate, Save America’

Almost a decade ago in April 2012, political scientists and political centrist gurus Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein explained, Let’s Just Say It: The Republicans are the Problem:

We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional. In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.

Over the decade that followed, the GOP became even more extreme and radicalized. It has “morphed into an obstructionist cult aiming to do whatever it takes to block governance in order to inflame voters and regain power, no matter the cost to the country,” as Norman Ornstein writes in his latest op-ed, Fix the Senate, save America:

It is a measure of the shattered state of the American political system that a deal proposed by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell simply to postpone by two months a dangerous confrontation over the debt ceiling — one that could result in a default and a catastrophic economic collapse — is getting widespread kudos [from the media villagers].

The need for the postponement, of course, came, just days before the debt ceiling was reached, because Senate Republicans would not allow the 50 Senate Democrats to raise the debt ceiling on their own, but mounted a filibuster with all 50 of their own refusing to budge, making it impossible to get the 60 votes needed to act. To act, it should be noted, to enable the country to pay for the $8 trillion of national debt racked during the Trump presidency!

Of course, McConnell did not propose the two-month extension out of the goodness of his heart, a concern for the institution of the Senate, or his concern for the country and the economy. He had demanded that Democrats raise the debt ceiling through the vehicle of budget reconciliation, making it more difficult or impossible for them to use reconciliation for their broader, ambitious agenda on human infrastructure. He feared that, pushed to the edge by the obstruction, and unable in any case to use reconciliation in time, Democrats in the Senate at the 11th hour would have carved out an exception for the filibuster’s 60-vote threshold — opening the door to further exceptions, and then to broader filibuster reform.

The debt ceiling fiasco is Exhibit A in the larger problem: One of our two political parties is no longer a traditional, conservative problem-solving party but has morphed into an obstructionist cult aiming to do whatever it takes to block governance in order to inflame voters and regain power, no matter the cost to the country. Flirting with disaster on the debt ceiling for naked political gain is one example. But consider others.

In the aftermath of the violent insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, incited by Donald Trump, where the lives of Vice President Mike Pence and scores of members of Congress were at risk, two-thirds of House Republicans, upon returning to the trashed Capitol late that afternoon, still voted that the election of Joe Biden was illegitimate. Some of their members have likened the assault to a typical tourist visit, and have tried to whitewash the history.

Subsequently, Senate Republicans filibustered and killed a carefully balanced bipartisan commission to investigate what was behind the insurrection. In the face of evidence that several of their own, in the House and Senate, had helped plan or incite the violence, there has been no pushback or sanction by GOP leaders in both bodies against them. When lawmakers like Madison Cawthorn openly call for violent action, there is no reaction, much less condemnation.

Republicans in the Senate have voted as a bloc against the bulk of Biden’s nominees for executive and judicial positions, using the rules to stretch out and delay their confirmations; at the same time, Republican Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz have put holds on all Biden nominees for positions in national defense and diplomacy, no matter how qualified or how urgent the need to fill the posts, in the process endangering America’s national security.

And as Republican legislatures and governors in many states enact drastic voter suppression laws and provisions enabling the intimidation or removal of election officials doing their jobs, providing avenues for their partisans to overturn election results they don’t like, the GOP reaction in Congress has been to oppose all efforts to protect the election and voting system.

In 2006, the last renewal of the Voting Rights Act passed unanimously in the Senate, with Mitch
McConnell and Charles Grassley, among others, as co-sponsors. The 2021 John Lewis Voting Rights Act, designed to restore the 2006 law by countering the Supreme Court’s decision on Shelby County that eviscerated it, is now totally opposed by McConnell, Grassley and the rest of the Republican Senate Caucus, except for Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski.

A broader set of common-sense voting reforms to create free and fair elections and prevent abuse, in a compromise bill spearheaded by West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar, was designed by Manchin to get at least 10 Republicans to enact it over a filibuster. So far he has not a single one.

While there was action on a bipartisan infrastructure bill, it was supported by Republicans not only because it is wildly popular, but to limit drastically its scope, spending and funding sources and head off a broader bill to include climate, child care, child tax credits and taxes on the wealthy that reflect Biden priorities that will not receive a single GOP vote. Both bills, of course, are now in limbo because Democrats can’t reach their own required unanimity in the Senate.

The broader inability to act is rooted in Senate Rule XXII. The Senate filibuster has, especially since the Obama presidency, been transformed by Senate Republicans from a rarely used tool to enable a minority feeling intensely about a major national issue to block or postpone action into a universal weapon of mass obstruction, raising the bar to 60 of the 100 senators on nearly every issue big and small, controversial and not, to block action or use more and more floor time to cause disruption.

As E.J. Dionne has written, “Just look at the numbers. From 1917 through 1970 (53 years), there were only 58 cloture motions to shut off filibusters. From 1971 to 2006 (35 years), there were 928 cloture motions. From 2007 to now (14 years), there have been 1,410 cloture motions.”

None of this has redounded to the benefit of Biden or Democrats. In one recent poll, the president’s approval has dropped below 40%, with congressional approval much lower — for lawmakers of both parties. A combination of factors beyond the debt limit stalemate have contributed, including the fallout from the Afghanistan withdrawal; the public distemper over COVID’s continuing disruption of lives and the tribal divisions over masking and vaccination; and the Democrats’ own internecine divisions over the substance and tactics to enact the centerpiece of the Biden agenda, physical and human infrastructure.

What to do? There are, in fact, common sense actions Democrats can take to get the country and their own standing back on track.

1. Use the two-month reprieve on the debt ceiling to work out the differences on infrastructure and move forward on reconciliation. This is obvious, but as Biden said recently, it really does not matter in the end if it takes six days or six weeks to get this agenda moving through. The sniping between Sens. Bernie Sanders and Joe Manchin notwithstanding, there is a deal to be had. The money part is not the biggest obstacle — a compromise between $1.5 trillion and $3.5 trillion over 10 years can be had at somewhere around $2 to 2.5 trillion. Deciding on priorities, perhaps limiting the years for some, and determining what to do about the Hyde Amendment on abortion, are tough to work out and will take a little more time.

But the bottom line is that if a deal is reached and holds in the House, it will be a huge momentum boost for Biden and his party. On the numbers, this will mean that in the first Biden year, some $4 trillion will be dedicated to transform America’s social fabric, on roads and bridges, broadband, climate, child poverty, education, home health care and much more, taking us into Great Society territory. It would change the debate from Democrats stymied and bickering to Democrats accomplishing big things. Of course, it would take masterful action by Speaker Nancy Pelosi to get all of her members to vote for something that is not what they all wanted. But the alternative is far more unpalatable.

2. Use the reconciliation bill to end the debt ceiling blackmail once and for all. For the past decade, each required decision to raise the debt limit has been misused for crass political purposes. Of course, both parties have played a game on raising the debt limit, but before President Obama, each side understood that in the end, they would give enough votes to keep the U.S. stable and protect its role as the world’s reserve currency.

Those days are now long gone. There are two effective ways of ending the hostage-taking that can fit under the budget process. One, devised by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, is to include an automatic increase in the debt ceiling in every annual budget resolution. The second, ironically created in 2011 as a one-time fix by McConnell, is to enable the president to raise the debt ceiling, with Congress able to disapprove in a joint resolution that the president can veto — meaning he only has to carry one-third of one house to prevail. Our corrosive politics cannot survive these showdowns every year.

3. Change the filibuster rule. In the face of obduracy, the only way Democrats can get democracy reform, universal background checks on guns, climate change laws, minimum wage increases and immigration reform will be to overcome the impossible 60-vote hurdle. To do so will require all 50 Democrats to agree, and several, led by Manchin and Sinema, are resistant.

But it is still doable, not by eliminating the filibuster or weakening it, but by restoring it. For most of its existence, the rule and norms surrounding filibusters put the burden on the minority to go to extraordinary lengths, and pain, to block or retard action in the Senate. Now, the burden is entirely on the majority. The best reform, promoted by former Sen. Al Franken and me for a decade, is to flip the numbers, from 60 required to end debate to 41 required to continue it, with the 41 having to maintain the floor continuously while debating germanely. Manchin has spoken favorably about this approach. If Democrats do it, they will have a fighting chance to do much more to cement their legacy.

If Charles Dickens were writing about our politics, he might start with “It is the worst of times.” True — but with some discipline and focused action, Democrats can make it, if not the best of times, a time of great accomplishment and an opening to broaden their political appeal. If they fail to do so, it will get even worse.

It’s a good start, but I have argued for years that the U.S. Senate needs to be reimagined – it is fundamentally undemocratic. Senators represent land (states), not people, like House members who serve equally apportioned districts. This has resulted in a GQP bias in the Senate, as sparsely populated, largely white rural states enjoy an advantage over heavily populated diverse states, which allows them to dilute the voting power of tens of millions of Americans.

Ed Kilgore explains, Republican Senators Haven’t Represented a Majority of Voters Since 1996:

Daily Kos Elections has come up with a chart displaying the percentage of the population represented by senators from each party since 1990, along with the percentage of Senate votes each party captured (displayed in three-cycle averages, since only one-third of the Senate is up for reelection every two years):

Republican senators haven’t represented a majority of the U.S. population since 1996 and haven’t together won a majority of Senate votes since 1998. Yet the GOP controlled the Senate from 1995 through 2007 (with a brief interregnum in 2001–02 after a party switch by Jim Jeffords) and again from 2015 until 2021.

Ian Millhiser At Vox adds, America’s anti-democratic Senate, in one number:

If the Senate were anything approaching a democratic institution, however, the Democratic Party would have a commanding majority in Congress’s upper house. The Senate is malapportioned to give small states like Wyoming exactly as many senators as large states like California — even though California has about 68 times as many residents as Wyoming.

Because smaller states tend to be whiter and more conservative than larger states, this malapportionment gives Republicans an enormous advantage in the fight for control of the Senate. Once Warnock and Ossoff take their seats, the Democratic half of the Senate will represent 41,549,808 more people than the Republican half.

[I]t’s worth highlighting just how much of an advantage Republicans derive from Senate malapportionment. In the 25 most populous states, Democratic senators will hold a 29-21 seat majority once Warnock and Ossoff are sworn in. Republicans, meanwhile, have an identical 29-21 majority in the 25 least populous states.

The 25 most populous states contain nearly 84 percent of the 50 states’ total population. So 16 percent of the country controls half of the seats in the United States Senate (and that’s not accounting for the fact that DC, Puerto Rico, and several other US territories have no representation at all in Congress).

American democracy, in other words, is profoundly undemocratic. And it is undemocratic in large part because our Constitution does not provide for free and fair elections in the Senate. A commanding majority of the nation elected a Democrat to the United States Senate, but half of all senators will be Republicans.

This is a result of the pro-slave state Constitution ratified in 1789. The other anti-democratic relic of the pro-slave state Constitution which continues to vex us is the Electoral College system.

No other modern democracy in the world has a legislative body as fundamentally anti-democratic as the U.S. Senate. And literally no other nation on Earth has copied our insane Electoral College system.

Mark Reutter explains:

Thomas Jefferson believed that a country’s constitution should be rewritten every 19 years. Instead, the U.S. Constitution, which Jefferson did not help to write (he was in Paris serving as U.S. minister to France when the Constitutional Convention was held in Philadelphia), has prevailed since 1789.

Jefferson thought the dead should not rule the living, thus constitutions should expire frequently, but the fact is that the U.S. Constitution quickly became enshrined by the public and is the oldest constitution in the world,” said Zachary Elkins, a professor of political science at Illinois.

Many other constitutions do not last very long, according to Elkins, who is working with Tom Ginsburg, an Illinois professor of law, on a project to collect and analyze some 760 constitutions used worldwide since the U.S. Constitution took effect.

“There is a lot of infant mortality,” Ginsburg said, noting that the average age for a national constitution is only 16 years.

The U.S. is fast approaching its 250th birthday (2026). Doesn’t the current generation of Americans deserve a modern Constitution stripped of all the relics of our antebellum slavery past? The long-dead slave owning Founding Fathers should not rule the living centuries later from beyond the grave.

Eliminate the Electoral College system for the direct popular vote like every other modern democracy in the world, and apportion the Senate, like the House, by population – retaining the minimum representation of one House member and one Senate member for sparsely populated states. The U.S. should become a true democracy, and live up to our democratic ideals.

The new Constitution should declare that the right to vote is a fundamental right of citizenship in a democracy which shall not be abridged by any state or the federal government.

I would encourage Congress to enact a Constitution Revision Commission to study and draft a modern revision of the U.S. Constitution, to be reviewed by Congress and if approved, submitted to the states for ratification before 2026.