01 June 2012
In a famous story about the creation of the Senate, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were debating a possible upper legislative chamber over tea, and Jefferson wanted to know why it was necessary to create an undemocratic body like the Senate. In response, Washington asked Jefferson why he had poured some of his tea into a saucer. “To cool it,” Jefferson answered, to which Washington replied “Even so, we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.”
The story (even if it might be apocryphal) illustrates that the slowness and deliberation of the Senate were intentional and designed to offset the popular passions that might govern the House of Representatives. The Senate’s rules were designed to emulate a gentleman’s club (such as the filibuster, which originated from the idea that gentlemen would have the good sense to limit the length of their speeches and that it would be rude to cut them off) but have become archaic as the body changed from a club to a typical legislative chamber. The rules of the Senate as they are currently designed have resulted in giving the opposition a trump card that is usually disproportionate to their legislative power. While its original structure incentivized moderation and compromise, the electoral system that populates its membership has incentivized partisanship. As a result the Senate has changed its form but not its function. The Senate can be deferential and deliberate or it can be factional and partisan, but it can’t be both.
The problem is compounded on foreign policy issues. The Senate was designed for a world when slow communication allowed for slow debate over issues such as the use of military force or the ratification of international agreements. That the Executive Branch has found ways to avoid the “advice and consent” of the Senate, or seeking only a superficial semblance of the same, is not entirely an opportunistic power-grab by the Executive, but a practical response to the fact that modern crises do not allow for the deliberation that the Constitution provided for. Attempts to square the circle, like the War Powers Resolution, have become political footballs that have only given presidents additional excuses to take a flexible (or cynical) approach to its constitutional requirements. This also leaves aside the issue of holds on presidential appointees, debates of the President’s “fast track” trade authority, and an appropriations process that not only leaves critical programs underfunded but also “stove-pipes” budget requests vertically through individual agencies, often inhibiting inter-agency cooperation. More pointedly, the combination of partisanship and outdated procedure will contribute to a foreign policy that is erratic, undisposed towards long-term grand strategy, and predisposed towards “lowest common denominator” compromises, simultaneously risk-averse and extremist, inclined towards the status quo, constitutionally ambiguous, agency-driven, and bureaucratically ossified.
Furthermore, it should be realized that centrism and bipartisanship are historically aberrations rather than the typical state. In a 2007 article for International Security that analyzes this trend, Charles Kupchan and Peter Trubowitz present a series of charts demonstrating that congressional bipartisanship increased sharply with World War II and the Cold War, held steady until the Cold War ended, and then steadily declined. The fact that Republicans are usually more supportive of military solutions to foreign policy crises while Democrats are deferential towards diplomacy is a generalization but not an oversimplification since that divide will increasingly outline partisan debates about foreign policy. For example, “smart power” is a good idea, but it can be implemented only if its advocates adjust to the fact that the political landscape is deliberately working against them. The last time the U.S. was divided along partisan lines it had few global commitments; now, its commitments are so many that it remains a global leader, if only by default.
If “political will” — which is often evoked as the solution to American foreign policy dilemmas — is to work effectively then it needs to be realized that political will must be enabled by a system that will allow it to be asserted, being mindful of political dynamics and the incentive structures that have led to the current situation. After all, political will can never be suggested as a solution unless it is first recognized that the current crises are a direct result of the supposed solution (or lack thereof). Amending the Senate’s rules will not solve any of the United States’ foreign policy crises alone, but it will enable solutions more easily than in the current environment. Unfortunately, political will is the first step that will allow for meaningful structural reform for the Senate, which will in turn enable further will to solve the rest of the U.S.’s dilemmas. The debates — particularly about congressional-executive war powers — are essentially unchanged since the last time they were addressed. In other words, the U.S. and the rest of the world should ask what global crisis will need to happen before meaningful reform can take place, and until that point, should be prepared for the situation to become worse instead of better.
Photo by Jer Thorp.