An Attempted Defense of Bicameralism

A couple days ago, I argued that reforming the Senate requires first understanding what we want to the Senate to be. And in order to do that, we need to articulate the reasons why it should exist at all.

You’ve probably heard this story before:

A famous (though perhaps fictional) simile often quoted to point out the differences between the House and Senate involves an argument between George Washington, who favored having two chambers of Congress and Thomas Jefferson, who believed a second chamber to be unnecessary. The story goes that the two Founders were arguing the issue while drinking coffee. Suddenly, Washington asked Jefferson, “Why did you pour that coffee into your saucer?” “To cool it,” replied Jefferson. “Even so,” said Washington, “we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.”

A convenient tale, but one that skims over some of the more complicated reasoning behind a bicameral legislation (remember that Senators were democratically elected until 1911, and also that the way the chamber is organized allocates power to smaller states disproportionate to their populations). The question is where legislation needs “cooling,” and what exactly that means.

The way “cooling” legislation works right now is pretty awful. Look at the health care debate: the House produces a bill with a public option, and the Senate kills it. The House proposes bill X with policy Y, and the Blue Dogs in the Senate demand Y be stripped as a blood sacrifice to the centrist gods. Typically it has far less to do with the merits of Y than it does simple dick-swinging.

That’s the kind of cooling we don’t need. But if the House is supposed to be far more directly responsive to the voters, then it does make sense to have a separate chamber which is less responsive (yet still subject to some public oversight, both electoral and otherwise), and in which legislators are far more committed to wonky, technical, and (of course) philosophical high-minded debate over X and Y.

That’s not where we are now. But down the road I’m going to finally get to examining what institutional adjustments might get us closer.


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