Democrats Have Inherited a Broken Senate. Can They Make It Work?

Democrats Have Inherited a Broken Senate. Can They Make It Work?

Democrats Have Inherited a Broken Senate. Can They Make It Work?

Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer has his work cut out for him. Here are four ways he could make the Senate work.


Tom Udall used his farewell address as New Mexico’s senior senator to deliver a dire assessment of the chamber in which he had served for 12 years. “The Senate is broken,” he said in December. “Our government is supposed to respond to the will of the majority while protecting the rights of the minority. Instead, we have the tyranny of the minority. That minority is superwealthy, politically powerful, and dangerously out of touch with the American people.”

“We have to do something to fix this,” he said, concluding with a warning to his colleagues: “We do not have any time to waste.”

Udall’s urgency was well-placed, as was his implicit warning that Senate Democrats must seize every opening to govern boldly if they hope not only to repair a broken Senate but also to save their party and their country. To do this, Senate Democrats must frame a policy agenda that matches and ideally exceeds the ambition of President Joe Biden. As the new Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) must empower committee chairs to amplify agendas on issues ranging from racial justice to military spending. Accountability must be a priority—not just when it comes to trying Donald Trump for high crimes but also with investigations into his administration’s failed response to the coronavirus pandemic, the profiteering by pharmaceutical companies, and the monopoly crisis that has grown dramatically worse since Covid-19 hit. And they must build better relations with grassroots activists, embracing candidates who can excite and extend the party’s base as part of a smarter strategy for building on the Democratic majority in the difficult midterm elections of 2022.

None of this will be easy, as Senate Democrats have no margin for error.

When Udall spoke in December, he was preparing to leave a Senate where a narrow Republican majority had functioned for four years as a rubber stamp for Trump’s White House wrecking crew. Yet Democrats failed to achieve their hoped-for gains in the November 3 election. Only a last-minute reprieve—the January 5 Georgia runoff victories by the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff—positioned Democrats to control the chamber with the barest possible majority.

The Georgia wins eased Biden’s burden. Cabinet nominees and judicial picks will navigate a confirmation process defined by Schumer and Judiciary Committee chair Dick Durbin (D–Ill.), a far easier route than if former majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who turned the Senate into what Schumer called a “legislative graveyard,” and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a calculating partisan who is desperate to satisfy his party’s right wing, had retained those positions. Policy proposals have a chance to get hearings, debates, and votes as the new president and his allies seek a $1.9 trillion stimulus package to address the pandemic and the economic crisis it has spawned.

But the next two years will be a tightrope walk for Schumer and his caucus. They’ll control committee chairmanships and have the power to bring nominations and legislative proposals to the floor. But under a disappointing organizational arrangement Schumer and McConnell were negotiating, Republican filibusters would still pose an obstructionist threat. And even when Senate Democrats get floor votes, they will need a boost from Vice President Kamala Harris to break ties. As such, the new majority party will have to be constantly on the watch to avoid defections by its more conservative members, such as West Virginia’s Joe Manchin.

That’s not just frustrating; it’s dangerous. The pressure to limit expectations and to compromise with rigid Republicans and deficit-hawk Democrats will be intense. Senate Democrats will be told to sacrifice their ambitions in order to keep the Biden agenda afloat. But that’s a perilous approach that is unlikely to yield the desired results for the new president or for his party.

A Senate controlled by the Democrats, no matter how narrowly, must be more than Biden’s governing partner. The United States does not have a parliamentary system; it has a system of shared powers that requires a dynamic legislative branch. And the Senate will not be dynamic unless Schumer and his colleagues embrace Udall’s urgent call to fix the broken chamber.

To get things right, Schumer and the Democrats must acknowledge and address the crisis of a mangled institution that has emerged—along with the Electoral College—as the most dysfunctional spawn of the constitutional compromises of 1787. Today’s Senate is absurd by design and in practice. The design flaws are on the founders, who revolted against British colonialism and then proceeded to create an American House of Lords. For the first 126 years of the chamber’s existence, senators were not even elected; they were chosen in statehouse backroom deals so corrupt that muckraking journalists identified the Senate as a treasonous institution. “Treason is a strong word, but not too strong to characterize the situation in which the Senate is the eager, resourceful, and indefatigable agent of interests as hostile to the American people as any invading army could be,” Cosmopolitan observed in 1906, in the introduction to the magazine’s series on how bribery and influence peddling shaped what was anything but the “world’s greatest deliberative body.”

Even with the 1913 enactment of the 17th Amendment, allowing for the direct election of senators, the chamber remained unrepresentative—as it does to this day. The 48 senators who opposed the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett in October represented 13.5 million more Americans than the 52 senators who voted to approve it. The “tyranny of the minority” that Udall warned of has been baked into the Senate since its creation in 1787 by representatives of small states—including some in the slaveholding South—who feared that the new United States might actually become a democracy. Today, a senator from Wyoming elected in 2018 with just 136,210 votes can cancel out the decision of a senator from California elected in the same year with 6,019,422 votes. Just as the Electoral College’s fundamental flaws haunt the American experiment in the 21st century, the Senate, too, remains an antidemocratic relic. And its unsoundness is compounded by inbred structures—particularly the filibuster—and practices that militate against honest debate and bold initiatives.

“Time and again,” says Susan Liss, director of the Democracy Program of the Brennan Center for Justice, the Senate fails “to vote—or even deliberate—on bills that could address the serious issues facing our nation. Presidential appointees, federal judicial nominees, legislation addressing unemployment benefits, the environment, disclosure of political campaign contributions, and myriad other critical issues have been stalled or shelved. Why? Because the arcane rules of Senate procedure have repeatedly prevented crucial issues like these from reaching the Senate floor.”

“The reality of the filibuster is paralysis—a deep paralysis,” Udall said. That paralysis will be hard to overcome because, as The Hill notes, while the Democrats now have a razor-thin majority, at least five Democratic senators are resistant to filibuster reform.

Even if reforms are initiated, the chamber’s clubby character remains a hindrance to decisive action, as was illustrated at the close of the Barrett confirmation process, when the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, California’s Dianne Feinstein, hugged Graham and declared, “This has been one of the best set of hearings that I’ve participated in.” Feinstein’s encomium to a rushed and biased process drew rebukes from grassroots groups and pro-choice organizations, including NARAL, which had consistently supported her until then. And though Schumer said he had a “long and serious talk” with her, it’s naive to think of Feinstein as an outlier. Too many senior Democrats are too deferential to longtime Republican colleagues, imagining they can somehow find common ground. As Kevin de León, the California Democrat who sought to unseat Feinstein in 2018, reminded us in October, “Republicans play by their own rules, and if you play by their rules, they will then change them when they want to.”

The question is whether Schumer will play hardball. He did not go to war with McConnell over the organization of the new Senate, to the frustration of many activists. Instead, the New Yorker sought a reprise of the plan that Democrats and Republicans settled on in 2001, the last time the Senate was split 50-50. Adam Jentleson, a former Senate aide whose book Kill Switch makes a compelling case for reforming the rules, noted that under Schumer’s plan, Democrats retain “the powers that come with majority control”: committee chairmanships and the ability to advance bills and nominations to the floor for consideration by the full Senate. But Norm Ornstein, a veteran Senate watcher, argued McConnell wouldn’t have agreed to evenly split committees “if there were a Republican president and a 50-50 chamber.”

A more encouraging signal came in Schumer’s “Dear Colleague” letter of January 12, in which he outlined an ambitious agenda for the new Senate. In addition to goals like holding Trump to account for the incitement of an insurrection and advancing the new president’s Covid-19 relief measures, Schumer wrote, “The U.S. Senate will finally address the major challenges facing our country that have too long been ignored. We will consider bold legislation to defeat the climate crisis by investing in clean infrastructure and manufacturing, which will create millions of good jobs for Americans, regardless of zip code. We will get to work fixing and significantly improving our health care and child care systems and helping caring economy workers that are working overtime during this crisis. To fix our historic income inequality problem, we will fight to restore workers’ rights and fairness in our tax code. To achieve justice for all Americans, we will pursue immigration, democracy, and criminal justice reforms. And that’s just the beginning.”

What was most striking about Schumer’s letter was his assertion that “if our Republican colleagues decide not to partner with us in our efforts to address these issues, we will not let that stop progress.”

Schumer has got his work cut out for him, in his own caucus and in a Senate where McConnell will be gaming the process at every turn—and looking for the wedge issues that might restore Republican control in 2022. As majority leader, Schumer will have to employ all the tools McConnell utilized during the Trump years—including the budget reconciliation process that can thwart filibusters. But this is about more than the mastery of parliamentary procedure. If he hopes to renew the Senate, Schumer and his colleagues must raise the chamber’s profile as a guarantor of accountability and a generator of ideas sufficient to meet the challenges of the moment.

That’s a tall order, but here are four ways Schumer and his team can begin working to fix a broken Senate:

1. Define the Left Wing of the Possible

The Senate Democratic Caucus needs to reassert itself as a visionary force that is more than just a partisan amen corner for a centrist president. Senate Democrats will take cues from Biden, but they also need to move issues to the top of his agenda. They can start by uniting in support of Delaware Senator Tom Carper’s Washington, D.C., Admission Act, which had 42 cosponsors in the last Congress. D.C. statehood is all the more urgent since Trump’s abuses revealed the city’s vulnerability. Adding a new state is a big deal, and it’s something most Democrats support. So is a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision. So is the For the People Act, with its ethics and campaign finance reform proposals. So is the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which had 47 Democratic sponsors in the last Senate. Hold hearings, force votes, use these issues to frame calls for filibuster reform. And don’t stop there. The Senate has historically led on labor and immigration reform, two areas that need urgent attention after decades of neglect. And the chamber should again investigate and challenge the military-industrial complex. Schumer backed last year’s push to cut Pentagon spending by 10 percent. With deficit hawks circling once more, Democrats need to renew their efforts to allocate less to military contractors and more to human needs.

2. Empower Democratic Committee Chairs

In the new Senate, the Budget Committee will be chaired by Vermont independent Bernie Sanders, and he is ready to rock. “In the past, Republicans used budget reconciliation to pass massive tax breaks for the rich and large corporations with a simple majority vote,” Sanders said. “As the incoming chairman of the Budget Committee, I will fight to use the same process to boldly address the needs of working families.” At the Banking Committee, incoming chair Sherrod Brown (D–Ohio) plans to review the financial system through a “climate lens and through a racial justice lens.” He declared, “We need a banking committee in the Senate that will stand up to [the] corporate interests and work for middle-class people, work for working families.” Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a former preschool teacher and an outspoken critic of privatization schemes that “drain the resources from our public schools,” will take charge of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. “We now can set the priorities that we’re fighting for,” Murray says. That’s exactly the right attitude, and Schumer should share not just the spotlight but also agenda-setting responsibilities with progressive chairs who are prepared to use their committees to fight corruption and promote economic, social, and racial justice.

3. Accountability, Accountability, Accountability

The new Senate has been charged with trying and convicting Trump for high crimes against the republic. Even in the face of overwhelming Republican opposition, this is the essential starting point for Democrats to reassert the chamber’s immense authority to examine malfeasance in the public and private sectors. The Senate also has a duty to investigate every aspect of the January 6 Capitol siege, and incoming Intelligence Committee chair Mark Warner of Virginia made a good start by identifying the Capitol as a “crime scene” and asking telecommunications and social media companies to preserve content associated with the attack. But there are plenty of other inquiries that must be launched. For instance, as the pandemic exploded last spring, Senate Democrats urged McConnell to focus on oversight of all Covid-related legislation. “Despite the severity of the COVID-19 public health and economic emergencies, no legislative or committee business related to the COVID-19 public health and economic emergencies has been scheduled,” the Democrats noted in April. Now, they are in a position to provide that oversight, and they should be aggressive in doing so—exposing the Trump administration’s deadly record of mismanagement, the self-dealing of Trump aides and Republican senators, and the slow rollout of the vaccination program. Stepped-up oversight isn’t just about pinning the blame on Trump’s team; it’s also about putting pressure on Biden’s administration to get things right.

4. Expand the Democratic Majority With a 50-State Grassroots Strategy

Senate Democrats will spend the next two years on the razor’s edge. The party stumbled in 2020, when seat gains fell far below expectations; it cannot afford to do so again in 2022. Schumer and other top Democrats must jettison their top-down recruitment strategy, which erred on the side of running bland centrists with records in business or the military rather than exciting contenders who might expand turnout. Warnock and Ossoff were largely exceptions to this rule, and they won. More typical was what happened in Kentucky, where the D.C. crowd’s favorite, Amy McGrath, won just 38 percent of the vote against McConnell. All the stops were pulled out to prevent the nomination of a Kentucky progressive, Charles Booker, who had a vision for building a multiracial, multiregional “Hood to the Holler” coalition. As Schumer and his team prepare for 2022, they should focus on helping dynamic candidates like Booker and Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman. Democrats need to embrace the best lessons from Georgia if they hope to win victories that will empower them to repair a broken Senate and initiate transformational change.

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