A few Senators willing to put our nation’s needs ahead of their party’s political power could enact profound positive change in our nation’s governing culture. By insisting on electing a Senate leader that can garner the votes of two thirds of his or her peers, a few patriotic senators could restore the dignity and stature of the Senate.
Our nation’s founders clearly intended the Senate to be an assemblage of thoughtful reflective leaders, open to collaboration and compromise. Maintaining such qualities requires both rules and leadership that support them.
There is no mention of political parties in the Constitution. The founders recognized that partisan politics can foster corruption. In his Farewell Address, George Washington warned that: “[Political parties] are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.” John Adams wrote: “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties…… This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.” In Federalist #10, James Madison argued that the new government should be organized as a federal republic precisely in order to protect against the corrosive power of political factions.
The roles of Majority Leader and Minority Leaders of the Senate were not even established until the 1920s. Nowhere in the Constitution is there any mention of either job. During the 19th century, the Senate President Pro Tempore appointed members of the Senate’s committees and performed other leadership roles that have since been usurped by the party leaders of the Senate.
The Constitution provides the Senate authority to make its own rules and select its own officers. Senate practices have evolved over decades to concentrate control of our nation’s future in the hands of the Majority Leader and increasingly to short circuit real deliberation. Changes in Senate rules and customs have led to diminishing or eliminating the checks and balances that traditionally forced Senators to consider each other’s views and reach reasonable compromises. But the power exercised by the majority leader is derived only from precedent. According to the Constitution, a simple majority of Senators can change the Senate rules whenever it chooses to do so.
So what should change now? A non-partisan Senate leadership role should be established which is granted authority to appoint committee positions and to schedule what bills and other Senate business comes to the floor. It is critical to assure that this leadership role cannot be controlled for partisan advantage, but instead will be held by leaders who can garner the trust and respect of their colleagues of all political persuasions. Election to the job should require a two thirds majority of all Senators.
Perhaps this could involve restoration of the historic role of President Pro Tempore. Perhaps a new role and job title is needed. Perhaps it’s as simple as requiring a two thirds vote to elect the Majority Leader.
How could we make such a fundamental transition in the Senate in the face of today’s hyper-partisanship? How do we re-establish the nonpartisan leadership role for the Senate that the founders envisioned? How do we restore respect for the Senate as an institution?
It could happen as soon as the new Senate is convened. It will just take a couple Senators who care more about our country than they do about their party. And there is precedence for the power that independent minded Senators can have to force such a change.
Jim Jeffords was elected as the Republican Senator from Vermont in 2000. He switched to being a registered independent in 2001 and then caucused with the Democrats. His decision flipped the Senate from a 50–50 tie to a 51–49 Democratic majority, ending Trent Lott’s term as Majority Leader and making Tom Daschle the Majority Leader on the same day Senator Jeffords changed caucuses.
Many Senators of both parties are fed up with the today’s extreme partisanship. Some are hopefully willing to do what is necessary to restore the dignity of the Senate for the good of our country. It is easy to imagine Senators in both parties going to their caucus and declaring their intent to do what Senator Jeffords did unless the Senate creates a new leadership role supported by two thirds of Senators as the first item on the Senate agenda for 2021. Their courage and commitment to put the country’s needs before their party’s power that could force the necessary reform.
Surely there are Senators worthy of this leadership role, who have earned the trust and respect of their peers across party lines and who could lead the Senate in a sensible, patriotic and moderate manner.
Other reforms to the Senate rules should also be made. But this fundamental change in how Senate leadership is determined could do more than anything else to temper the highly partisan nature of today’s political discourse.
The speech President Kennedy was prepared to deliver on the evening he was tragically assassinated ended with these thoughts: “Neither the fanatics nor the faint-hearted are needed. And our duty as a party is not to our party alone, but to the nation, and indeed, to all mankind. Our duty is not merely the preservation of political power, but the preservation of peace and freedom. So let us not be petty when our cause is so great. Let us not quarrel amongst ourselves when our Nation’s future is at stake.”
Senators, our nation needs your courage to put the country’s interests ahead of those of your party, to end the partisan brinkmanship in the Senate and to restore your once august institution to its honored role as the world’s most deliberative body.