Having given a brief account of what I have done in writing my book, Congressional Gridlock and Imperial Presidents, I have decided to talk in the next few posts about some of the things I found out about our history--or at least my version of our history. If you find these interesting and want more detail, please read the book.
For me perhaps the most interesting and provocative discovery I made was about how the Senate came to be what it is today. The Senate we have now is not just what the Constitution set up, and in fact was probably not what the writers of the Constitution intended. The Senate did not become what it is today until the early 1800s, after the government had been in operation for ten to fifteen years.
The writers of the Constitution were not very specific about the relations between the House and Senate. They either did not have any very definite idea of what that relation would be, or they just assumed that it would be what they were familiar with from the model of the British government, and the individual state governments. The reality was that there was little real justification for having two separate chambers in the legislature beyond the fact that that was the way it was in Britain. The Founders, as most of us do even today, imitate their model first, and provide reasons for doing so second.
In the same vein, the intended role of the Senate in the government is best determined by what the Senate actually did in the early years of the government, when the members of the Senate were personally aware of the views and beliefs and expectations of the Founders.
What the Senate did in those early years was largely nothing. Senators saw their role as one of advising the House, suggesting amendments to the bills sent to them from the House, but little else. In particular they did not claim the right to approve bills before they could be sent to the President. The Senate was on its way to being irrelevant to the legislative process. (My source for most of this discussion is a book by Elaine Swift, The Making of an American Senate.)
Faced with this growing irrelevance, the Senate in the early 1800s began to assert that it had a real role in the legislative process. They did so by asserting that it could initiate its own legislation, and that both houses had to agree on a bill before it could be passed. This gave the Senate the final authority on any bill sent to them from the House. The result was the Senate we have today, where the Senate can block a bill it does not like, and force compromises in it.
Again, this was not the intended role of the Senate. The House supinely accepted the Senate's interpretation of its powers, accepting its subordinate status, as it has also in several other ways. The intention of the writers of the Constitution was that the House would be the primary legislative body, but it did not believe in itself.
The motivation for the Senate's claims were of course to protect the states from the interference of the will of all of the people in the country on the actions of each state, especially the slave states. Thus was born the claims of state's rights, ultimately losing claims, but ones we have even to this day, preserved to a large extent by the continuing existence of the Senate. In fact most states today do not even want these "rights."
The point for me in this little piece of history is that the Senate became what it is today through a pure power play. There was little debate about what the Senate was doing, and in particular no Constitutional Amendments allowing such changes. It just happened. The Constitution explicitly states that each house of Congress is responsible for determining its own rules and procedures, and the Senate just changed its rules.
If all of this is true, and I admit that this may only be my version of history, then it follows also that the House can change its relationship to the Senate now by simply changing its rules and procedures. The House can reestablish itself as what the writers of the Constitution intended it to be, the dominant chamber. The only question is whether it wants to make such a change, or is it happy with its subordinate status.
Here I am talking about returning to the original intent of the Constitution, and I am not even a member of the Tea Party. I am sure their version of American history is quite different.