Solutions to Fix the Broken U.S. Senate


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By Jon H. Oberg

Is the U.S. Senate irreparably broken? Why does it seem so? What changes might restore it to a more useful and respected place in our constitutional framework? Is it time for election reforms?

It is not as if these are academic questions. The country has barely escaped an economic crisis of the first order. We may be about to slip back into a second crisis unless Congress leads us away from profound economic dangers.

Our problems are not only economic. National security is endangered when foreign governments such as China finance the national debt of a profligate United States.

Some of us look with interest if not envy toward parliamentary democracies and how they reacted to the near collapse of the world economy in 2008. The British subsequently formed a coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats and are attacking their unsustainable budget deficits with combinations of spending cuts and tax increases. The Germans temporarily re-established a Grand Coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats to solidify policies that enhanced their manufacturing base while protecting their basic social welfare compacts.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the institution created to be amenable to comparable solutions that rise above the passions of everyday politics, the U.S. Senate, is caught up in petty bickering and entangled in its own rules. It has essentially given up on the fiscal problems that surely must be dealt with to set an economic course away from disaster.

No recent commentary captures the current sorry state of the Senate better than George Packer’s much-discussed essay in the August “New Yorker,” “The Empty Chamber: Just How Broken Is the Senate?” Packer observed the Senate firsthand for several months in 2010 and came away convinced that the nation’s upper legislative body is broken because of its own rules on secret legislative holds, filibusters and unanimous consent requirements.

Packer holds out a hope that the Senate will rediscover in the Constitution (Article I, Section 5) a provision that each house may, at the outset of each session, establish its own rules and thereby scrap the existing procedures that have prevented the Senate from doing its duties. That solution seems unlikely, as it has been repeatedly tried and succeeded only at the margins, decades ago.

Somewhat more probable—but still unlikely as a speedy remedy—is self-correction within the existing rules, which has more recent precedents. I note this as one who has worked in the Senate, or with the Senate, periodically over the last four decades.

Illustrating the Senate’s capacity for self-correction is the critical fiscal policy work of the Senate Budget Committee over the period 1981–1997. Sen. Edmund Muskie, Democrat of Maine, and Sen. Henry Bellmon, Republican of Oklahoma, led the committee through 1980. For years they worked together well as chairman and ranking member, often acting on a bipartisan basis. But when Pete Domenici, Republican of New Mexico, took over as chairman in January of 1981, he took his own party members literally behind closed doors to tell them how he would run the committee and how they would be expected to vote as a block.

On that day in 1981, as the Republicans caucused in a committee anteroom, perplexed Democrats waited at the committee working table. At the junior end sat Sens. Gary Hart, Donald Riegle, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and J. James Exon, who had not personally met all of their new Republican counterparts. I sat directly behind them in the staff row. When the Republicans emerged and filed in, Sen. Exon turned to me and asked, “That’s Quayle [of Indiana], but who’s that?” Sen. Moynihan answered instead, “That’s Kasten [of Wisconsin] and that’s Symms [of Idaho], and—remember this moment—we’re all in trouble now.” Packer quotes Sen. Hart’s recollection of 1981: “The Quayle generation came in … same generation, same hair style, same beliefs.”

That “trouble” would persist through record budget deficits and a deep recession before Congress passed the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990 and the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993, which put the country on a path toward several years of stability and prosperity. It was no small irony that the chairman and (by then) ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, who subsequently put the country on a bipartisan course toward a balanced federal budget in the mid-1990s, were Sens. Domenici and Exon, who had learned important lessons from the 1981 rupture. Although Packer records the 1981 breakdown to support his theory of dysfunction, he fails to observe this notable self-correction that eventually led to the Balanced Budget Act of 1997.

But Senate self-correction often takes years and requires legislators who can put aside partisanship, as must leaders in parliamentary systems when they govern in coalitions. Are current senators, driven by litmus-test ideological arguments that are increasingly taking over the political parties, up to the task? Can senators act swiftly enough to avoid another economic crisis? Can they match the relative speed with which the U.K., Germany, and several other democracies have acted? Do they understand what is at stake?

It is helpful when looking comparatively at other governments to separate ideology from partisanship. Political parties in parliamentary systems typically are ideological, but partisanship is tempered by proportional representation, which often necessitates coalitions. Therein may lie important lessons for us in the United States.

Ideologies have their place. There have been occasions in the history of the Senate where reformers called for more ideology and fewer coalitions across party lines. Remember, for example, James Macgregor Burns’ 1963 work, “The Deadlock of Democracy,” in which he lamented the Senate coalitions that cut across party lines to thwart civil rights legislation.

But different times call for different solutions. The immediate need is for coalitions to break the grip of Senate rules and the Senate’s weak, overly partisan leadership. This is where proportional representation may be helpful. The fact that we are a not a parliamentary system does not mean that we cannot incorporate some of the advantages of proportional representation into our governance.

In proportional representation elections, because outcomes may be different compared to winner-take-all plurality elections, voters have more of a sense that their individual votes count. This tends to increase voter turnout, as there are fewer “wasted” votes. Elections are less likely to be swept by one-issue candidates or by ideologues funded by increasingly uncontrolled interest group spending. Media influence to preordain an outcome is diminished. Depending on the mechanics of proportional representation systems, candidates often must appeal to a broader spectrum of voters than in winner-take-all elections.

Open primary elections contain elements of proportional representation. Voters, regardless of party affiliation, are permitted to vote in either primary, meaning that voters can choose to vote in the election where they think they can make the most difference for their point of view. Candidates must appeal across party lines to get a proportion of independent and other-party votes.

Rank-order and instant-runoff voting systems also incorporate proportional representation. When voters are allowed to indicate, in addition to voting for their first choices, how acceptable other candidates would be to them, candidates must take into consideration the proportions of voters who prefer others.

Voting systems are largely under the jurisdiction of state governments, which prescribe them for both national and for state and local elections. Voter dissatisfaction with the U.S. Senate could propel state legislatures to adopt voting systems that would elect Senate candidates more open to cooperation on economic problems.

Open primary, instant-runoff and other proportional representation elections are finding favor in many states. Washington and California are in the forefront. The nation may soon look to Nebraska for additional leadership. Along with Maine, Nebraska has adopted proportional voting in presidential elections (by congressional district rather than winner-take-all).

Given the unlikely prospect that the U.S. Senate will abandon its most arcane rules, or otherwise correct itself in a timely way, voting system changes may be the best chance to fix this broken legislative chamber.


Jon H. Oberg, of Rockville, Md., is a native of rural Lincoln, Neb. A political scientist with degrees from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the Free University of Berlin, he worked in the Senate in the 1970s and 1980s and was legislative liaison for higher education at the U.S. Department of Education in the 1990s. In recent years he has consulted gratis for both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, the efforts of which appear in 2007, 2009 and 2010 student loan reform legislation.


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