The Senate Is Failing

Since the chamber’s seats aren’t apportioned by population, and because it was originally unelected, the Framers also described it as a bulwark against the temporary passions that might arise from the elected branches. The six-year terms for senators would guard against whatever passing fads might inflame the House from time to time. “In order to judge of the form to be given to this institution, it will be proper to take a view of the ends to be served by it,” James Madison explained at the Constitutional Convention. “These were first, to protect the people against their rulers, secondly, to protect the people against the transient impressions into which they themselves might be led.”

Over time, the Senate’s defenders began to inch away from the Framers’ openly anti-democratic rhetoric. They no longer held up the chamber as a defense against “agrarian interests” or said it would prevent a “leveling” effect against the republic’s wealthiest members. Instead, they began casting the Senate as a protector of democracy, not an obstacle to it, because it could block transitory threats to the constitutional order upon which that democracy was built. Robert Byrd, a longtime Democratic senator from West Virginia, was among the chamber’s leading hagiographers in the late-twentieth century. His opening remarks to a new group of senators in 1996 sum up this mindset well.

Ladies and gentlemen, you are shortly to become part of that all-important “necessary fence,” which is the United States Senate. Let me give you the words of Vice President Aaron Burr upon his departure from the Senate in 1805. “This house,” said he, “is a sanctuary; a citadel of law, of order, and of liberty; and it is here—it is here, in this exalted refuge; here, if anywhere, will resistance be made to the storms of political phrensy and the silent arts of corruption; and if the Constitution be destined ever to perish by the sacrilegious hand of the demagogue or the usurper, which God avert, its expiring agonies will be witnessed on this floor.” Gladstone referred to the Senate as “that remarkable body—the most remarkable of all the inventions of modern politics.”

The Senate, in Byrd’s view, had long “provided stability and strength to the nation during periods of civil strife and uncertainty, panics, and depressions.” The attack on Capitol Hill is a perfect test for this idea. Here we had a president who had spent two months in vain and futile attempts to overturn the results of a free and fair election that he lost. At every turn, he had failed. And so he summoned his followers to Washington, told them that the country was in peril and that they had to fight for it, and directed them to march on the Capitol, where he would join them. He did not and retreated instead to the White House, where he would resist efforts to help the besieged lawmakers when the rioters broke down the doors.

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