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The US Senate is structurally broken. And it’s not just the filibuster

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 7/21/2021 James Pindell
Jeanne Shaheen, Rob Portman, Joe Biden, Susan Collins, Mitt Romney posing for the camera: President Biden and a bipartisan group of senators speak to the media following infrastructure negations at the White House on June 24. © The Washington Post President Biden and a bipartisan group of senators speak to the media following infrastructure negations at the White House on June 24.

Three questions rippling through the US Senate on Wednesday were an encapsulation of the dysfunction plaguing the chamber. The conversations went as follows:

— Will the body delay, once again, a vote on infrastructure that the majority of Senators support, a month after a bipartisan deal was announced at the White House?

— How is it possible that one senator could single-handedly hold up 60 diplomatic nominations, as Senator Ted Cruz did this month? This at a moment when the United States is trying to counter China, stand up to Russian aggression, leave Afghanistan, contain Iran, strengthen alliances in Asia and Europe, and stem increased migration from Central America.

— If Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell can really force every Republican to vote against raising the debt ceiling — which pays for spending that was already agreed upon — what is the way out before the government runs out of money in October?

Progressive critics are quick to point out all three signs of dysfunction are being driven by Republicans. But on a deeper level, it’s about why the Senate operates in a way that allows for moves like these to happen in the first place. After all, during the Trump administration Democrats were able to stifle a lot of the Republican agenda using the same tactics, like the filibuster and holds on nominations. In fact, Democrats set records for the amount of gridlock in the Senate while Trump was president.

The Senate in 2021 is not a shining example of the world’s most deliberative body. And fun fact: there is no evidence that George Washington ever said to Thomas Jefferson that the point of the Senate was to serve as a saucer to cool the hot tea from the House.

Indeed, while the framers did intend for the Senate to be a place of balance with the House, both in temperament and to protect the interests of smaller states, it was always intended to be a place where the majority ruled.

These days every bill facing the Senate is dictated by the minority. And it is that fundamental truth means only one thing: the Senate is broken.

Yes, the filibuster is the root of a lot of the problem

Video: Senate election reform bill likely to fail amid filibuster battle (ABC News)


Historians have written entire books on the origin of the filibuster (hint: a version of it didn’t even appear until Jim Crow) and how it was the biggest procedural tool in promoting white supremacy in America. Those facts are undeniable. But they are simply the background for the current situation is in the Senate, which is much broader than that.

The filibuster isn’t just the reason why a Democratic-led Senate cannot pass items that address racial equity like police reform, a housing bill, immigration reform or a comprehensive voting rights bill.

It is also the reason why popular items like basic gun control or climate change measures haven’t passed. And, yes, why it has been a month since 55 Senators announced they backed an infrastructure plan that still hasn’t passed.

The wild thing is that all it would take is a simple majority to get rid of the filibuster altogether. But not even President Biden seems to back that idea. But other steps don’t need to be that drastic. Unlike in the past when filibusters involved hours-long speeches, a senator today can effectively filibuster something by just saying they will do so. One idea being discussed is to change the rules to require the senator to actually stand up and do it.

The point of the Senate now is not to pass lasting legislation, but stop the other party from doing anything

The Senate is not where legislation goes to get better and stronger, but where it goes to die. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was an expert at making items die during Republican president George W. Bush’s second term. Then McConnell led Republicans through an era, under Democratic president Barack Obama, in which the explicit goal was not to inject conservatism into legislation, but to stop anything from becoming law.

In the end, winning meant not seating a US Supreme Court justice in an open seat, something McConnell has described as his proudest moment as a senator. Think about that.

Geographical shifts have meant the Senate is structurally imbalanced

As regions of America increasingly become dominated by either Republicans or Democrats, there are huge implications for how that plays out in the US Senate.

Consider this: even though Republicans have had a Senate majority for 23 of the past 30 years, the last time Senate Republicans represented the majority of the American population was in 1996, one analysis found.

Today, while the Senate is split 50-50 among the parties, Republicans only represent 43.5 percent of the population. That’s an improvement from the 38 percent they had in 2008.

Yes, California with its population of nearly 40 million and two Senators has a lot to do with this. And, it turns out that for every small Republican state like Wyoming and South Dakota there is a small Democratic state like Delaware and Vermont. And Texas and Florida are large Republican states. But, as it shakes out, Republicans have a structural advantage in the Senate that framers could not anticipate. They largely saw political differences as geographic and parochial in nature, not through today’s ideological divides.

Who knows where all this is headed but the story of today’s partisanship and gridlock is the story of the Senate, where all bills must flow through. They just rarely do for structural reasons.


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