January 6, 2014

The House of Commons, Coming To An America Near You

By: Brian Jencunas

Prediction: To see the future of the U.S. Senate, look across the Atlantic at the British parliament. As gridlock frustrates the majority party, the Senate will voluntarily turn itself into a majority-dominated body, akin to the House of Commons.


America’s early statesmen wanted a legislature different from England’s and their vision still shapes the Senate. Parliament is a raucous deliberative body where members regularly trade insults. The Senate is a stodgy gentleman’s club where bitter enemies call each other “my good friend.” In Parliament, party leadership forces members to vote the party line while the Senate has 100 individuals who vote as they wish. Leadership has to persuade its followers rather than threaten them with removal from committees or expulsion from the party. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., regularly take high-profile positions that are at odds with their leaders’ wishes.

This independence has frustrated presidents and Senate leaders alike. But the frustration was worth it because, at its best, the Senate was a true partner in the lawmaking process. The genuine give-and-take of negotiations between senators and the president resulted in legislation that vindicated Madison’s vision of government. From civil rights in the 1960s to tax reform in the 1980s, and welfare reform and balanced budgets in the 1990s, powerful senators worked with the White House to pass legislation that was better than anything one group could have written.

That changed in the 2000s. The realignment of American politics, which saw conservative Democrats became Republicans, and liberal Republicans became Democrats, created a Senate of clearly-defined ideologies. In turn, this led to once-unthinkable party unity, comparable to that seen in House of Commons. Democrats came together to oppose President Bush’s tax cuts and block his changes to Social Security. Tellingly, Republican opposition to President Bush’s immigration reform came from the House, which was once the more controlled institution.

Unthinkable party unity quickly became ordinary. Republican opposition made the Affordable Care Act the first entitlement program passed without bipartisan support and caused the first serious fight over raising the debt ceiling since Eisenhower.

Gridlock is the obvious problem with the Senate, but the loss of serious legislation is just as troubling. As the Senate becomes more partisan, policymaking is the first casualty. In the last decade, the Dodd-Frank Act was the only major law to come from the legislature rather than the president.

The importance of maintaining party unity prevents senators from advancing alternatives to their president’s laws, because the opposing party will jump on any sign of division. Bills from the minority have increasingly been designed for maximum popularity, with no chance of becoming law. When Bush proposed changes to Social Security, Democrats offered nothing but lockstep opposition. Republican alternatives to Obamacare exist, but they are either half-measures designed to stop unpopular parts of the law or conservative pipe dreams that exist only to win cheers when speaking to right-wing crowds.

The solution to gridlock is obvious – weaken the filibuster. Then, like in the House of Commons, the majority party can pass laws so long as it votes together. This is appealing to Democrats who think changing demographics give them a permanent majority on the Senate. Republicans, at least those who know permanent majorities are a political fantasy, favor the changes for when they take power. But this will further erode the Senate’s legislative responsibilities. Dissent and honest negotiations, the requirements for legislating, were a product of the division within the Senate. They are already rare; soon they will be as extinct as they are in Great Britain.

Capitol Building image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.