Barney Frank and the "Democratic" Senate

Brion McClanahan
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Posted: Jan 27, 2010 12:01 AM
Barney Frank and the "Democratic" Senate

            With the ongoing debate over Obamacare and socialized medicine occupying much of the collective attention of the American public the past few months, Americans have become more familiar and focused on Senate rules and procedures, particularly the possibility of a Senate filibuster to stifle a vote on national healthcare.  This has angered many Democrats, particularly those who seek to ram through bigger and more expensive government at a time when many Americans want to pump the breaks on irresponsible spending, higher debt, and higher taxes.  This led Massachusetts representative Barney Frank to call for and end to filibusters in a 16 January interview on the now bankrupt Air America radio network.  Frank said that a Senate rule requiring a 60 vote majority to end a filibuster is “anti-democratic” and that “it’s time to shut it down.”  Small States from the “Mountain West,” in his estimation, continually conspire to retard progress in the Senate.  Mr. Frank has never been more correct, at least concerning the “anti-democratic” nature of the Senate.  In fact, this is precisely what the founding generation wanted when they designed the Upper House.

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            The original Senate was elected by the State Legislatures in an attempt to check democracy.  The Virginia Plan proposed by James Madison and Edmund Randolph called for proportional representation in both houses and for Senators to be selected by the House of Representatives from a list submitted by each State.  Randolph argued that “the general object [of the Senate] was to provide a cure for the evils under which the United States labored; that in tracing these evils to their origin, every man had found it in the turbulence and follies of democracy; that some check therefore was to be sought for against this tendency of our governments; and that a good Senate seemed most likely to answer the purpose.”  Piece Butler of South Carolina agreed, and added that “taking so many powers out of the hands of the states…tended to destroy all that balance and security of interests among the states which it was necessary to preserve.”  States’ rights, the essence of the “Mountain West” minority that Frank criticizes, served to stop mob rule in the Congress.

In that regard, Butler cut to the heart of the issue during debate over the Senate.  The question was not whether Senators should be elected by the State legislatures—most of the framers understood that establishing a democracy was not a high priority—but whether representation in the Senate should be proportional to the population of a State.  The States would be free to have greater democratic control of their governments if the people wanted it, but the Senate was created to check the tyranny of what John Randolph of Roanoke called “King Numbers” at the federal level.  Roger Sherman of Connecticut suggested that each State have one Senator, thus preserving the equality of the States in the new Congress.  His recommendation ultimately led to the Connecticut Compromise at the Convention and paved the way for the equal representation of each State in the Upper House.

A closer reading of the powers granted to the Senate amplifies the framers’ concern with democracy.  The Senate, not the democratic House of Representatives, has final say in presidential appointments, treaties with foreign nations, and cases of impeachment.  The Senate was designed to be independent from the will of the people and beholden to the interests of the States.  John Dickinson of Delaware suggested this would allow the Senate the ability to “check and decide with uncommon freedom.”  He envisioned an Upper House similar to that of the House of Lords in England where each member would be from “the most distinguished characters, distinguished for their rank in life and their weight in property….”  Democracy in the Senate never entered his mind, and the Constitution was ultimately as much Dickinson’s document as it was Madison’s, if not more so. 

The debates of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia are littered with critical observations about democracy.  The United States government under the Constitution was never designed to be a democracy, and Frank is simply regurgitating old Progressive rhetoric that the Senate is undemocratic and that the United States should be tied to the wishes of the majority.  Underlying this is an implicit attack on the founding generation and the Constitution.  Frank doesn’t care about the 60 vote rule in the Senate (it has worked in favor of Leftists in the Democrat Party in the past); he simply wants to destroy any power that rural America, in particular the West and the South, has in the Congress.  The Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution ruined much of the control States have over the Senate, but the Senate at times still serves as the independent check the framers designed it to be.  The non-democratic nature of the Senate was put in place to protect property from being plundered by a small majority or a very vocal minority, which in the case of national healthcare would happen.      

                Since the early twentieth century, the Progressives have been very good at using the term “democracy” to undermine federalism and State power.  Don’t continue to be duped.  This rhetorical assault on the founding principles of the United States is not grounded in reality.  Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts probably made the most unequivocal statement in condemnation of democracy when he said at the Constitutional Convention that, “The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy.  The people do not want virtue, but are the dupes of pretended patriots.”   Let the House of Representatives remain as a bastion of democracy on the federal level, but leave the anti-democratic nature of the Senate alone.  Better yet, abolish the Seventeenth Amendment and return the States to their rightful position in the federal government.  That way the States could continue to thwart fiscally disastrous proposals like national healthcare, and Senators couldn’t be bought off through federal bribes and kickbacks.