House of Pain

Confused? Check the publication date, and read this.

Yesterday, thanks to the magic of Twitter, I was alerted to the existence of the Rosa DeLauro is a Fucking Hipster Tumblr, and all I could think was, “Thank God for the United States Senate.” Now there is a legislative body where everybody dresses in a staid manner, as the good lord intended legislators to dress. And they don’t only look boring; they actually are boring, barely ever passing any kind of legislation whatsoever.

The Founding Fathers were, of course, worried about the problem of hasty legislation reflecting the popular passions of the moment—outlandish attire, mash-ups, reform of the energy sector—and thus in their wisdom bestowed the country with a number of devices designed to prevent such foolishness.

In the initial setup, boringness was ensured by limiting the vote to older, wealthy white men. Ultimately, the claims of justice expanded the franchise substantially, which underscores the vital role the Senate plays as a “cooling saucer” of our democracy. It’s probably a phrase you’ve heard before, but it’s worth dwelling on the full power of this metaphor to explain everything you need to know about the design of political systems. It comes to us, after all, from no less an authority than an 1888 book on Omitted Chapters of History Disclosed in the Life and Papers of Edmund Randolph and thus should be taken as the last word on our Constitution. The story, as told by Randolph and recounted by Moncure Daniel Conway is that “Jefferson called Washington to account at the breakfast table for having agreed to a second chamber. ‘Why,’ asked Washington, ‘did you pour that coffee into your saucer?’ ‘To cool it,’ quoth Jefferson. ‘Even so,’ said Washington, ‘we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.’”

Obviously, even to this day nobody would think of drinking coffee without first deploying their cooling saucer. That’s why every office in America has, in its kitchen, not only a coffee machine but also an accompanying cooling saucer. Visit your local Starbucks and ask about their cooling saucer. Now try to imagine the nightmare of coffee poured directly from the machine into the cup—that’d be your Senate-less America, a grim and scalding place.

The key to the proper operation of the Senate is that the majority does not rule. Suppose 53 senators want to do something? Well, too bad, they can’t! As few as 40 senators can force a debate to continue forever. And by “debate” I mean posturing for CSPAN cameras while members urge the leadership to just drop the whole thing so everyone can go back to fundraising. It’s just not possible to hold the vote. Which is exactly how the Founders wanted it. To be sure, some people point out that this supermajority requirement isn’t actually in the Constitution and that if the Founders wanted it that way they could have written it that way. This, however, ignores the crucial wisdom of the Saucer Metaphor. A majoritarian Senate would be like some kind of crazy scheme for pouring freshly brewed coffee directly into people’s cups. Ouch.

The real genius of the system, however, is the power it gives any single senator. You see, no matter how many votes are behind a given initiative, it only takes one senator to introduce several days’ worth of delay simply by objecting to all the different motions needed to bring an item up for a vote. For a top-tier legislative priority, you just take the time. But for other business, like nominations of sub-Cabinet officials, it’s not worth it, and in practice a lone senator can block action.

As Robert Byrd explained in a letter early in March, “Extended deliberation and debate — when employed judiciously — protect every senator and the interest of their constituency, and are essential to the protection of the liberties of a free people.” Indeed, this is why countries from Norway to Japan to Canada that lack such measures have long ago degenerated into totalitarian hellscapes, the all-consuming power of their dictators interrupted by only the occasional anguished screams loud enough to be heard outside the gulag walls. Indeed, even here in the United States, absent a filibuster we might have adopted an anti-lynching bill back in 1922, and who knows to what that could have led. Had only the Norwegians shown American-style caution and put that kind of notion into a cooling saucer where it belongs, they could have been spared the plague of weird shaking and rock and roll to which they’ve succumbed in recent years.

So remember: Don’t listen to hipster House members with their talk of passing financial regulatory reform and climate-change legislation expeditiously. They wear funny scarves. Keep America boring. Keep the Senate just the way it is.

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