Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington

Ben Sasse gave his first speech as a Senator last week and it echoed themes from Newsroom and West Wing about putting the country ahead of partisan politics. If Sorkin is hopeful about the presidency of journalism, Sasse is calling for the Senate as a place to engage in important debates about the health of the nation:

And if I can be brutally honest for a moment: I’m home basically every weekend, and what I hear – and what I’m sure most of you hear – is some version of this: A pox on both parties and all your houses. We don’t believe politicians are even trying to fix this mess. To the Republicans, to those who claim this new majority is leading the way: Few believe that. To the grandstanders who use this institution as a platform for outside pursuits: Few believe the country’s needs are as important to you as your ambitions. To the Democrats, who did this body harm through nuclear tactics: Few believe bare-knuckled politics are a substitute for principled governing. And does anyone doubt that many on both the right and the left now salivate for more of these radical tactics? The people despise us all.

And why is this? Because we’re not doing the job we were sent here to do. The Senate isn’t tackling the great national problems that worry those we work for.

I therefore propose a thought experiment: If the Senate isn’t going to be the most important venue for addressing our biggest national problems, where is that venue? Where should the people look for the long-term national prioritization? Or, to ask it of ourselves, would anything be lost if the Senate didn’t exist? Again, this a thought experiment, so let me be emphatically clear: I think a great deal would be lost if the federal government didn’t have a Senate – but game out with me the question of “Why?” What precisely would be lost if we had only a House of Representatives, rather than both bodies? The growth of the administrative state, the fourth branch of government, is increasingly hollowing out the Article I branch, the legislature – and many in Congress have been complicit in this hollowing out of our own powers. So would anything really be lost if we doubled-down on Woodrow Wilson’s impulses and inclinations toward administrative efficiency by removing much of the clunky-ness of legislative process?

Or, we could approach this thought exercise from the inside out: What is unique about the Senate? What can this body do particularly well? What are its essential characteristics? What was it built for? Consider its attributes:

We have 6-year terms instead of 2-year terms (and the Founders actually considered lifetime appointments to the Senate);

We have proportional representation of states, not of population counts – reflecting a federalist structure where we are supposed to be especially attuned to the distinction between agreeing that government might have a role to play in tackling certain kinds of problems – and yet guarding against a routinized assumption that only a centralized, national government can ably tackle problem X or Y;

Third, we have rules designed to strengthen the hand of individual senators, not to the end of obstruction, but rather to ensure full debate and engagement with dissenting points of view – for the Founders had less concern with governmental efficiency than with protecting minority rights and culturally unpopular views;

Fourth, we had no formal rules acknowledging political parties until as late as the 1970s; we had merely a 20th century convention of acknowledging to speak first the leaders of the two largest party blocks;

We have explicit constitutional duties related to providing the executive with advice – chiefly on the building of his or her team and on the long-term trajectory of foreign policy.

Six-year terms; representation of states, not census counts; nearly limitless debate to protect dissenters; no formal rules for political parties. What then is the answer to the question, “What is the Senate for?” Possibly the best shorthand is: “To shield lawmakers from obsession with short-term popularity to enable us to focus on the biggest long-term challenges our people face.”

Reclaiming American institutions. Deliberative bodies of legislators. Imagine that.


4 thoughts on “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington

  1. A positive thought experiment but one that few, including our sitting senators, will be inclined to undertake. The freedom our current senators have from the constraints of state legislatures and political parties undercuts any sense of, or need to orient themselves to, the institution(al sense) of the Senate. In other words, the ability to raise boatloads of money empowers senators but eviscerates the Senate.


  2. Senator Sasse also observed a now-largely-ignored tradition of the Senate– not to utter a word until a year after he was elected
    <q cite="Leave it to a historian with a Yale doctorate to respect a Senate tradition from a bygone era.

    Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., delivered his first speech on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon, waiting until a year after he won his Senate seat to speak from his chamber desk — the final member of the freshman class to do so. His remarks highlighted a trio of the chamber’s legendary figures: Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine and Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York."

    Someday I hope to be able to live in a state that would elect a Senator for whom I could vote.


  3. Thanks, Darryl, for highlighting Sen. Sasse’s first speech.

    In my view, it was an excellent maiden address and I would hope to see more of its kind in the coming days and years.

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s a first-rate example of what a level-headed historian can contribute in such a venue. May his tribe increase.


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