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The Consequences of a Dysfunctional US Senate

Updated: Sep 13, 2023

By Petyo Rakov

The United States of America, a self-proclaimed beacon democracy, is malfunctioning through a not-so-representative democracy. Certain governmental features of America, e.g. the bipartisan system and the disproportionate representation of states in the Senate, would be considered undemocratic by most developed countries. This article exposes some of the traits that members of the European Union should avoid acquiring.

Who Has Been Ratifying These Laws Anyway?

The legislative branch of the United States government is represented through a bicameral Congress, comprised of a Senate, and a House Representatives. The Senate consists of 100 senators and a president of the Senate – the vice president of the United States.

Senators’ terms last for six years and are staggered so that one-third of the Senate is up for re-election every two years. Consequently, two of those elections coincide with a presidential election and the third one with the midterm elections.

Furthermore, to pass legislation, both the House of Representatives and the Senate must pass the same bill by majority vote. Thus, control of the Senate guarantees a disproportionate amount of legislative influence since the House of Representatives has 435 members.

Due to the amplifying polarisation and dysfunctionality of American politics, ratifying a bill is usually easier said than done.

“The truth is born in argument.”… Enter the Filibuster.

Without a doubt debating ideas is the basis of modern democracy and the rule of law. However, this virtuous approach towards decision-making can easily be disrespected, twisted, and exploited in the pursuit of a private agenda.

When a bill is up for consideration, each of the members of the House of Representatives is allowed to speak only for a few minutes. On the other hand, debate on most bills in the Senate is unregulated time-wise.

This peculiar regulation allows an opponent of a bill to oppose its passing by prolonging a “debate”, sometimes with unrelated speeches, i.e. filibustering. The most ridiculous examples include recitations of Shakespeare and reading recipes for “pot liquor” for 15 hours.

Senator Strom Thurmond spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes to prevent voting on the Civil Rights Act of 1957. The bill was passed less than two hours after his filibuster ended.

That being said, not all hope is lost because a supermajority of three-fifths of the senators can break a filibuster by invoking cloture and forcing a vote. Unfortunately, the last time a single party occupied more than three-fifths of the seats was in 1979.

Moreover, since then the probability of a politician voting in support of a proposal of the other party has decreased tremendously. Thus, a more stagnated decision-making has emerged in part as an unintended implication of the filibusters.

Figure 1: Visualization of the developing partisan divide in the House of Representatives

The supermajority rule states that three-fifths of the absolute number of senators can initiate a cloture, not three-fifths of the present senators. The unexpected ramifications of this rule led to an alarming growth rate of filibusters.

There have been more than 2,000 filibusters since 1917, about half have occurred in the last 2 decades. Nowadays, a so-called “silent filibuster” is set into motion by a mere threat or if 41 out of the 100 senators are not present for a debate. The old-style “speaking filibuster” has gradually fallen out of fashion.

Figure 2: Attempted Senate cloture votes, 96th – 112th Congress (1979-2012)

What’s the Fuss About?

At first glance, the filibustering manoeuvres may seem like an exaggerated buzzword with no intrinsic value attached to it. In reality, this phenomenon has had troubling implications for democracy in the United States.

In the past filibusters have been applied to block legislations against racial discrimination, e.g. the previously mentioned Civil Rights Act of 1957. Terrifyingly, anti-lynching bills have been blocked in the 1920s and 1930s.

Nowadays, filibustering in the Senate is halting meaningful proposals for reforms on issues such as gun control, immigration, climate change and lately, abortion. One specific example that will clearly illustrate the dysfunctionality of the Senate would be the “For the People Act” fiasco.

Broadly speaking, the bill attempts to improve the voting process, by making voting more accessible, since elections happen on a workday by Americans rarely receive paid time off.

This objective will be pursued via an expansion of early voting and voting by mail. In March 2021, the “For the People Act” was passed in the House of Representatives.

Nevertheless, the bill was blocked in the Senate through a filibuster, even though it received unanimous support from the Democratic House Majority. Even with a secured government trifecta, i.e. the same political party holds the presidency and both chambers of Congress, bills can be blocked by a partisan minority.

This, along with the Electoral College and the allocation of only 2 senators per state, regardless of the population of the state, highlights the flawed “representation” within the American government.

2022 Midterms Elections – Continuation of the Status Quo or New Hope?

Because 2022 is the halfway point in Joe Biden’s presidency, midterm elections are held that determine the composition of the Congress, which in turn can oppose or support the agenda of the president.

These midterm elections are affected by the 2020 redrawing of congressional districts, which reflects migratory processes throughout the last decade. Hopefully, the new congressional districts reflect the naturally occurring fluctuations in the population and not the political interests of those responsible for the redistricting.

Although illegal, the practice of gerrymandering, i.e. redistricting according to private interests, is still inconspicuously practised.

The Republican Party has already a narrow majority in the House of Representatives. This means that for the next two years, President Biden will need to seek compromises in order to pass meaningful legislatures.

Lastly, the Democrats retained a narrow majority in the Senate due to a strategic alliance with two independent senators and the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Harris.

Overall, the new composition of the 118th United States Congress seems to be more slightly favourable towards the Republican Party, in comparison to the previous Congress.

Concluding remarks

The dysfunctional “debate” system in the Senate has halted the legislative process in America. Moreover, a potential solution to this crisis seems impossible because a major restructuring of Congress requires approval from the Senate.

Said reform is virtually unachievable due to the uncompromisable polarization, deeply entrenched in the political system of the United States of America.

Sources: US Senate, National Constitution Center, Brookings, Changing America

Written by Petyo Rakov

November 2022

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