For any attempt to free American government from petrifying partisanship that grips it now, by far the most difficult task will be to free Congress from the two-party system to which we have grown so accustomed over more than two centuries that we find it difficult to imagine our government without it. Yet it is not the form of government described in the Constitution.
George Washington warned us against partisanship in his Farewell Address in 1796:
“However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
Today, the parties have burrowed, like parasitic worms, deep into the very flesh of our government, where they battle each other for supremacy, to the vast detriment of the country. The Declaration of Independence rightly tells us that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Many today feel, with considerable justification, that their consent doesn’t count for much, or that the decisions made by partisan politicians in Washington reflect their oppression rather than empowerment.
Ironically, Washington’s Farewell Speech is recited by rote at the opening of every Congress, though few members remain in the chamber for this rite.
How, then, do we recover the apartisan government that the founders envisioned? Has the American Experiment in democracy failed forever? Is it already too late?
* Presiding over the Senate *
The two-party system has taken control of the levers of power in the Senate. The majority leader (presently Mitch McConnell), who is selected by a vote among members of the majority party only, dictates which bills reach a floor vote and which wither and die. The idea of supermajority, and its daughter the filibuster, which the founders conceived as ways to foster debate and promote compromise, have been largely abandoned because they can be used to thwart the power of a party that controls only a simple majority in the chamber.
In an apartisan Senate there would be no majority party caucus to elect a leader. The constitution assigns the role of presiding over the Senate to the Vice President, although he has no vote on the floor except in the event of a tie. Article 1 also directs the Senate to elect from their number a President pro tempore to oversee the Senate in the absence of the Vice President, or in the rare instance that he is exercising the office of a President who has become incapacitated, died, or been removed from office by impeachment or resignation.
To mitigate the possibility of collusion between the President and Vice President to control the Senate, Amendment XII requires that the Vice President and President be elected on “distinct ballots” of the Electoral College. Inconvenient in this age of partisan politics, this requirement has been bypassed in a system which allows each party to nominate a “ticket” for both offices, creating “running mates” and ensuring that one party holds both offices.
In an apartisan Senate, this forced cozy relationship between the President and Senate leadership should be eliminated. Distinct ballots for President and Vice President, as well as the election of President pro tem from the floor rather than a party caucus, would help to restore to the voters in nationwide elections some discretion as to how bills and appointments are managed as they navigate toward the Senate floor.
These changes in procedure would bring the workings of the Senate closer to the intent of the Founders and help ensure that the “consent of the governed” reaches the floor of the Senate, with the voice of minorities included in the debate.
* Promoting Fraternity *
The fiercely adversarial atmosphere that envelops Washington today does not serve the People well. It stifles compromise, which is the life’s blood of democracy, and it leads to the weaponization of procedural rules, which are intended to lubricate debate and protect the voices of the majority. It is the direct result of the two-party system, exactly as George Washington predicted.
Comity among those who hold elected office is a prerequisite for a democracy to work. A Senator should rely on respect from his peers for the office to which he was elected. He must also recognize that the other Senators were likewise elected, and respect the office of each of them
* Seating on the Senate Floor *
In today’s Senate, the phrase ‘across the aisle’ is more than a metaphor; it is a description of the actual seating arrangement on the Senate floor. Republicans sit in a monolithic group on the right side of the floor (a historical coincidence, though apt), with an actual aisle separating them from the Democrats on the left. Such an arrangement ensures that there is no socialization or even discussion on the floor. All debate is channeled through the leader holding the gavel, chosen by the majority caucus and granted inordinate power to control the course of legislation.
To increase the intermingling of lawmakers, seating on the Senate floor could be assigned at random, perhaps weighting the front rows by leadership position and seniority. Such an arrangement would blur the demarcations between the parties and might eventually result in more meaningful debate.
* Senate Cloakrooms *
Adjacent to the Senate chamber lie the ‘cloakrooms’, which are not what the name implies. Senate.gov explains that “Democratic and Republican cloakrooms adjacent to the Senate chamber serve as gathering places for party members to discuss chamber business privately.” The also contain snack bars, couches, televisions, and private phone. Only Senators of the designated party, their pages and select staff are admitted. They are, then, caucus rooms and partisan lounges where lawmakers can go for relaxation and refreshment, or to conduct business, without having to mingle with members of the opposing party or lobbyists. They are party headquarters located within the Capitol itself, paid for with taxpayers’ money.
The cloakrooms should lose their party designations, becoming rooms that Senators can use regardless of their political affiliations. As there are two cloakrooms, perhaps one could be designated as political, where members could hash out their differences away from the floor. The other could be apolitical, where members could just get to know one another, sharing stories of their families, interests, and personal goals, but not the politics of the day. In both cloakrooms members would be out of sight of the public and the press, but not other members who might disagree with them.
* Party Activity in an Apartisan Senate *
An apartisan Senate would not recognize party affiliation, but it would not forbid it either. Freedom of speech (freedom of thought) is the second freedom mentioned in Article I, followed closely by the freedom of peaceable assembly. Assembly for the purpose of establishing a party’s position on a particular bill (caucusing), however, should not take place within the Capitol or even in federal office buildings.
Neither the Vice President nor the President pro tem should participate in such off-campus meetings, even when conducted by their own parties, lest their roles as presiding officers become biased. Like a judge overseeing a trial, their judgements should be formed based on the issues raised on the floor of the Senate.
* The Constitution and Parliamentary Procedure *
The Constitution does not prescribe the procedures or rules by which the legislate shall operate, instead providing that “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings.” In consequence, none of the measures described above would require constitutional amendment. To convince those who presently hold the power to cede it back to the people will probably be an even more Herculean task. Yet it is one that must necessarily be undertaken for American democracy to survive, and to ensure that, in Lincoln’s powerful words. “government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”