Breakin' All the Rules

Democratic Senator Zell Miller says the Senate has become “just one big, bad ongoing joke, held hostage by special interests and so impotent an 18-wheeler truck loaded with Viagra would do no good.” He's proposed abolishing the direct election of senators -- laid out in the 17th Amendment -- and allowing, instead, state legislatures to choose them. California Republican Representative Duncan Hunter, meanwhile, says the chamber “has become mesmerized by cameras” in investigating the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal.

What's behind these charges? Miller is a cranky, retiring Georgian who came to the Senate reluctantly in 2000 to fill out the term of the late Republican Paul Coverdell. While Miller's technically a Democrat, he often works with Republicans and is an outspoken supporter of President Bush's re-election. He blames the Senate for holding up Bush's judicial nominees, encouraging partisanship, and allowing spending increases.

Hunter's complaint represents the institutional animosity that's always existed between the House and the Senate. Many House Republicans are frustrated that the Senate isn't more efficient at passing GOP bills and isn't run with a tighter fist -- in short, that it's not more like the House. That's a good thing, of course. The last thing we need is another Tom DeLay.

Many of the criticisms about the Senate are valid. The world's most exclusive club, as it's known, is unrepresentative: There are only a handful of minorities in the Senate now, and no African Americans or Latinos. Even though women make up more than half of the country's population, only 14 actually serve in the Senate (and one of them, Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, was appointed by her father). Senators from small states like Delaware, which has only one House member based on its population, carry as much weight as senators from large states like California, which has 53 House members. Because of a senator's seniority (based on length of time in office), lawmakers who represent fewer people often have more influence than those who represent larger numbers of voters.

In addition, the Senate has grown increasingly partisan in the last decade as House members -- such as Pennsylvania's Rick Santorum, the third-ranking Republican -- have come to the Senate, bringing with them the House's partisan venom. Think about this: In May, former President Bill Clinton delivered the first annual Robert J. Dole lecture at the University of Kansas. Not only did Clinton defeat Dole in the 1996 presidential election, the two faced off repeatedly when Dole ran the Senate. Yet they're able to put aside their differences. It's hard to imagine Santorum extending a similar invitation to, say, Tom Daschle or Hillary Rodham Clinton.

And the Senate is full of egos. It's probably not too far off to joke that when every senator looks in the mirror in the morning, he or she sees a president staring back.

But for all of its faults, the Senate shouldn't be changed. Just one senator or group of senators can provide a needed brake on legislation, especially when a single party controls the White House, House, and Senate. If this wasn't the case, the energy bill crafted by Vice President Dick Cheney and his secret committee would be law right now. We'd also be further in the red because Congress would have passed an even larger tax bill in 2003. Only senators can hold up a president's judicial nominees (think of Robert Bork or Miguel Estrada). And on its best days, such as those leading up to the Iraq War, the Senate floor is a lively, opinionated place full of thoughtful people debating the nation's future.

The fact that a single senator enjoys a six-year term and usually represents more voters than a single House member gives him or her greater autonomy to think about what's right for the country as a whole, rather than just what will score points in the immediate future. House members may consider this hogging the limelight, but it's senators who have been asking tough questions of the September 11 commission and of members of the administration with regard to Iraq. House members are welcome to chime in at any time.

As for Miller's desire to abolish the 17th Amendment, all I can say is that the American people have voted directly for senators for nearly 100 years. To take back their right now would not only be highly unlikely, as Miller himself has admitted, but also harmful to voters' sense of entitlement.

The Senate isn't perfect. It can be cowardly in standing up to presidents. It can be disorganized. It can be slow. And it can be infuriating. No one ever said government is neat and tidy; that's why the legislative process is often compared to making sausage. But it's a needed complement to the House and a necessary part of governing. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, the Senate is the worst form of government -- except for all those others that have been tried.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill. Her column on Capitol Hill politics runs each week in the online edition of The American Prospect.