The power of the U.S. Senate

The alarm bells have been sounding all week in the United States Senate, and we all need to be paying attention.

This isn’t about the accusations of presidential misdeeds, ongoing corruption and overwhelming partisanship, but about a political body once considered the “greatest deliberative body in the world” that is now barely functioning.

The reality is that it has been diminished significantly over the past 10 years with few of us even noticing.

Earlier this week, 44 former U.S. Senators — 32 Democrats, 10 Republicans, two independents — penned an opinion piece aimed at members of the current Senate, warning that we are entering into a “dangerous period.”

These are statesman from another era who already had their careers. They are removed from the current political bickering and partisanship, and no longer have anything to gain.

Their words to the current Senate were unprecedented.

“During our service in the Senate, at times we were allies and at other times opponents, but never enemies,” they wrote in the essay published in The Washington Post. “We all took an oath swearing allegiance to the Constitution. Whatever united or divided us, we did not veer from our unwavering and shared commitment to placing our country, democracy and national interest above all else.

“At other critical moments in our history, when constitutional crises have threatened our foundations, it has been the Senate that has stood in defense of our democracy. Today is once again such a time.”

But is the Senate up to the task?

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the longest serving GOP senator who is retiring at the end of the year, sounded a similar alarm a day later.

“The last several years I have seen the abandonment of regular order. Gridlock is the new norm,” Hatch said. “All the evidence points to an unsettling truth: The Senate, as an institution, is in crisis. The committee process lies in shambles, regular order is a relic of the past, and compromise — once the guiding credo of this great institution — is now synonymous with surrender.”

Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), who both lost their re-election bids, sounded similar warnings.

“We need more members who are not scared to stand up when someone in their party uses fear and lies to win support,” Heitkamp said.

But the Senate did not suddenly fall into a malaise. This has been happening gradually over the past 10 years.

According to an in-depth analysis by The Washington Post and ProPublica published just before the election this year, the legislative branch has been weakened by restrictions on debate with party leaders dictating the agenda.

“During that time, as the political center has largely evaporated, party leaders have adhered to the demands of their bases, while rules and traditions that long encouraged deliberative deal-making have given way to partisan gridlock,” the analysis concluded.

We often wonder what our congressional leaders do all day. It turns out not much in the way of actually crafting laws.

Here are some of the Post/ProPublica’s findings:

Junior senators have fewer opportunities to wade into the issues of the day, largely because Senate leaders limit the number of votes on amendments to proposed legislation. The number of such votes has shrunk to an all-time low under Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — less than 20 percent of all roll calls, down from 67 percent 12 years ago.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has logged an all-time high the past two years for the number of “closed rules,” where leaders eliminate any chance for rank-and-file amendments. Ryan closes off discussion four times more often than former speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) did 20 years ago.

Committees meet to consider legislation less than ever. As recently as 2005 and 2006, House committees met 449 times to consider actual legislation and Senate committees met 252 times. By 2015 and 2016, those numbers plummeted to 254 and 69 times, respectively.

The result has been less legislation and more and more authority delegated to the executive branch. That’s true of both parties, and the importance of individual legislators has been diminished.

Forty-four former senators announced to the world we are entering a “dangerous period.”

We concur and leave you with these final chilling words from Sen. Hatch:

“It ripples far beyond these walls, to every state, to every town and to every street corner in America. The Senate sets the tone of American civic life,” Hatch said. “Unless we take meaningful steps to restore civility, the culture wars will push us ever closer toward national divorce.”

We hope our current senators are listening.

The Post Star

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