Americans once again find their national well being captive to the depredations of the United States Senate. Alas, this is hardly the first time. Throughout its history the Senate has functioned as a barrier against needed social reform, and a bastion of reaction in a government that already maintains severe restrictions on the ability of the American people to better their society. Progressive Americans need to escape from the mentality that they must accept a system serving all of us, and especially our most vulnerable citizens, poorly for the third century in a row.
The history of the United States Senate is hardly a glorious one. It was created during the framing of the Constitution as an insurance policy for the slave states in case the North ever outweighed the South in population. This was in fact quite prescient of the slavers, for a majority of Americans lived at the time in Southern states. But slavers saw a future in which the North, with its industry and enterprise, could outvote the South in a truly representative body, so they created the Senate to guard their privileges.
The Senate has functioned as intended since the slave aristocracy insisted in implanting it in our founding compact. For generations, the Southern-dominated Senate blocked popular civil rights laws. The first federal anti-lynching legislation passed the U.S. House during Teddy Roosevelt’s administration, but the Senate blocked it, and future iterations of the same bill, for decades after T.R. had left the White House. The U.S. House passed its first civil rights bill of the twentieth century in the 1920s; Dixie’s barons in the Senate consigned the legislation to oblivion.
In the information age, the Senate has continued its dubious traditions. A master of parliamentary minutiae, Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has utilized copious applications of the filibuster to block a progressive agenda. The last comprehensive climate legislation to pass the House met its death in the upper chamber. McConnell, with his diabolical intrepidity, used his authority as Leader to steal a U.S. Supreme Court seat from the first Black president. And today, despite the For the People Act having passed the House, Senate conservatives have kept democracy reform bottled up. Our democracy is not safe from the Senate.
At PoliticsNC, we always like to draw North Carolina connections. In the case of the Senate, there are many, and they should not make us proud. Our state’s Senator Josiah Bailey led the Southern Bloc’s filibuster against anti-lynching legislation in the 1930’s. A few decades later, with de jure segregation gone but bigotry still rampant back home, Senator Jesse Helms filibustered the Martin Luther King, jr. Holiday. Senator Sam Ervin left a complicated and in many ways troubling legacy, but his achievements were also considerable. Besides Ervin and Terry Sanford, our senators have largely been unremarkable.
What is to be done? It’s not hopeless. Across the pond, Great Britain experienced similar frustrations with the undemocratic House of Lords, so they stripped the chamber of any power over lawmaking. American progressives should defang the United States Senate by removing its power to influence legislation or appointments. Our democracy is endangered, more so than at any time since the Civil War. We can’t afford to let the Senate drag us down the road to a tyrannical state.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.