The state of gridlock that is the United States Senate has been lamented by many recently. This frustration has only intensified with the news that there are 290 bills passed by the House of Representatives that have not been passed by the Senate. We get angry, we claim that our Senators are not representing our interests. But it is important to remember something about the Senate: they were never supposed to represent our interests.
When the Founding Fathers were creating our system of democracy, there was a preference to create two separate Houses that could act as an internal check on each other. One was intended to be a "People's House" directly elected by the People, with short terms of service that required the representatives to remain close to their constituents. The other, the Senate, was intended to represent the states to the extent that they retained the sovereignties not expressly delegated to the national government. Therefore, the Senate is not intended to represent the people of the United States equally. It was created to appease the small states that felt their interests would not be served by a government whose make up was based on population. It was the first of many compromises in our nation's history.
Another aspect of the Senate that must be considered is how Senators are chosen. Today they are chosen by popular elections, but this was not always the case. Originally, Senators were chosen by state legislatures. Some states allowed for elections to choose new Senators, but most did not. The 17th Amendment to the Constitution allowed for all Senators to be directly elected by the public. But why did the founders choose the original process? James Madison explains in Federalist Paper No. 62:
Another advantage accruing from this ingredient in the constitution of the Senate is, the additional impediment it must prove against improper acts of legislation. No law or resolution can now be passed without the concurrence, first, of a majority of the people, and then, of a majority of the States. It must be acknowledged that this complicated check on legislation may in some instances be injurious as well as beneficial; and that the peculiar defense which it involves in favor of the smaller States, would be more rational, if any interests common to them, and distinct from those of the other States, would otherwise be exposed to peculiar danger. But as the larger States will always be able, by their power over the supplies, to defeat unreasonable exertions of this prerogative of the lesser States, and as the faculty and excess of law-making seem to be the diseases to which our governments are most liable, it is not impossible that this part of the Constitution may be more convenient in practice than it appears to many in contemplation.
The assumption here is that big states will always be successful because of their natural resources and advantages. Small states need the Senate to help "level the playing field". But as anyone in California can tell you, big states are not immune to problems of their own.
Another way in which the Senate differs from the House is in the term of service. House members face re-election every 2 years, while Senate members face re-election every 6 years. This is yet another way to insulate America from the wild mood swings of the House, and by extension, the people. Madison again:
The necessity of a senate is not less indicated by the propensity of all single and numerous assemblies to yield to the impulse of sudden and violent passions, and to be seduced by factious leaders into intemperate and pernicious resolutions.
The Senate is meant to protect us. If we only had the House of Representatives to govern us, we might do something crazy, like end slavery or give health care to everyone. The Founding Fathers talked a good game when it came to democracy, but they did not trust the system completely. To them, is was something of a wild stallion, something that could be useful but also needed to be harnessed. So let the people have their voices in the House of Representatives. But just in case they do something crazy, we'll have the Senate there to save the day. Madison again:
The mutability in the public councils arising from a rapid succession of new members, however qualified they may be, points out, in the strongest manner, the necessity of some stable institution in the government. Every new election in the States is found to change one half of the representatives. From this change of men must proceed a change of opinions; and from a change of opinions, a change of measures. But a continual change even of good measures is inconsistent with every rule of prudence and every prospect of success. The remark is verified in private life, and becomes more just, as well as more important, in national transactions.
Again, the Senate is protection from ourselves. We may want to change the course of our nation, but that may be a foolish impulse, so we need the "adults" (and by adults, I mean white, land-owning men) to put the brakes on any meaningful change. While the Founding Fathers were revolutionaries, they were also powerful men who wanted to protect their self interests. They'd witnessed revolution first hand, and they were damn sure it would not happen to them.
Of all the ways I feel Madison and the other founders were wrong about the Senate, none stands out more than this:
Another effect of public instability is the unreasonable advantage it gives to the sagacious, the enterprising, and the moneyed few over the industrious and uniformed mass of the people. Every new regulation concerning commerce or revenue, or in any way affecting the value of the different species of property, presents a new harvest to those who watch the change, and can trace its consequences; a harvest, reared not by themselves, but by the toils and cares of the great body of their fellow-citizens. This is a state of things in which it may be said with some truth that laws are made for the FEW, not for the MANY.
The Senate is supposed to protect us from big money interests? How could men so brilliant actually believe that having a Senate appointed by those in power would protect people from the economically pwerful? The longer a person serves in a single capacity, the more open they become to corruption and influence from harmful forces. As we have seen in our government, those who serve longest develop relationships with the big money brokers. They become friends, even family. And they work together to serve their own financial interests, and those interests rarely match the interests of the people.
If you read Federalist Paper No. 62, you see that Madison comes back again and again to stability. Our government must have stability so that we can build a strong economy and strong international alliances. We must have stability so that the American people will put faith in their government and invest in the prosperity of the nation. This may have been true in the early years of the Republic, but this importance put on stability has not helped our nation recently. The Senate has become the place were legislation goes to die. But it is important to remember that this did not happen overnight. Perhaps the Senate was always meant to be a graveyard of change.