With the prospect of a President Donald Trump or a President Hillary Clinton on the horizon, the growing trend toward the executive acting without the consent of Congress is troubling to all political stripes. Both parties claim to worry about a strong presidency, at least if the other party is in the White House.
That trend has been exacerbated by President Obama, but it certainly didn’t start with him. With the exception of Calvin Coolidge, every president of the 20th and 21st centuries contributed to the problem.
Many proposals to address the imperial presidency have been floated over the decades. Some have even been implemented. None has stemmed the tide.
To rebalance the separation of powers, it is necessary to make Congress stronger. The best way to do that? Abolish the Senate.
The original constitutional purpose of the Senate — to represent the states, not the people who live in them — has long since been abandoned. With the 17th Amendment’s requirement that senators be popularly elected, there is no chance that it will ever be recovered.
Likewise, the original political purpose of the Senate — to act as a “cooling saucer” for the hot passions of the more-democratic House — has fallen victim to the evolving nature of American governance. The Senate has become more like the House, partly because more House members are being elected to the Senate, and also because the Senate’s real institutionalists — such as West Virginia Democrat Robert C. Byrd and Mississippi Republican Trent Lott — are no longer around.
Some liberals have called for drastically reforming the Senate because they consider giving equal votes to less populous states undemocratic. While that would make Congress more representative — presumably the goal of such a reform — it is a fundamental misunderstanding of both the purpose of the Senate and the problem of executive overreach faced by the federal government.
Some conservatives have called for repealing the 17th Amendment, which mandated popular election of senators when it was adopted in 1913. But that would be a half-measure anyway — the tendency toward more democratization probably can’t be reversed, and probably shouldn’t be.
Over two centuries, Congress has evolved in the worst possible way — the Senate’s rules have become too much like the House to be the kind of constitutional check the Founders intended. At the same time, the differing natures of the chambers make it almost impossible for the two legislative branches to work together to check the president. The pace of business is much slower in the Senate, making it difficult for legislation to move in tandem. And House constituencies tend to be much more ideologically homogeneous than those represented by senators, creating vastly different approaches to legislating and oversight.
The Senate, performing its assigned duty, continues to act as a check on the other chamber. But the result is not that the government is stymied and thus change is allowed to proceed at a slow and careful pace, as was the Founders’ intent. Rather, the inability of the two chambers to work in concert has resulted in power being claimed by the executive branch, with the legislative branch impotent to oppose the usurpation. This has been most obvious in foreign policy, but even on domestic issues such as immigration, the president has claimed a need to step in because of Congress’ supposed inability to get things done.
Attempts to reform Senate rules to smooth the path for legislation miss the mark. The problem is not the inability of Congress to legislate. That is a feature of the system, not a bug.
The problem is a Congress unable to stand up to or halt the diffusion of authority to the executive branch. All too often, Congress has been complicit in its own emasculation. Again, this is true on foreign policy, but it has failed most egregiously by abandoning its primary duty to pass appropriations bills, instead writing all-in-one omnibus spending measures that prevent serious consideration of how programs should be funded. Making the Senate more like the House by abolishing the filibuster will not do much to help that problem, because more legislation will not halt the slide of power down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Empowering the people’s House by abolishing the Senate would, by focusing the now-diffused authority in a representative body and creating a distinct congressional personality that has an interest in preserving its own power. Although this naturally raises the possibility of other problems — including the one mentioned, of gerrymandered House districts that elect members far apart on the ideological spectrum — it is the most effective means available of restoring the separation of powers envisioned by the Constitution.
As president after president added to the powers of the office at the expense of the legislature, the relationship between branches and between the people and their government changed.
The hot passions of democracy are now reflected not in the House, but in an ever-more authoritarian executive branch.
Those passions are reflected and reinforced by the president. The populist impulse toward the tyranny of the majority flows not from the House, as James Madison feared, but from the White House.
Trump’s loud disregard of constitutional process is worrisome, but he appears no less dedicated to executive overreach than Clinton, who makes the same broad arguments for expanding presidential power.
If we want to reclaim the idea of republican government, we need to get rid of the Senate — the appendix of American politics — and empower the people’s House to act as a bulwark against the ever-growing leviathan of executive power.