After two centuries as an anti-Democratic force, the Senate needs to adapt or it might wake up one day and find that its powers have been stripped down to ceremonial engagements. Don’t laugh! Our neighbors from across the pond not too long ago did exactly this to the House of Lords.
The English Parliament has existed since 1295, and since its inception the House of Lords had generally been the dominant chamber in England’s bicameral legislature. It represented the clergy, nobility and landowners and it had a greater say in shaping British government than the House of Commons that represented the common people. Sound familiar?
However, all of this changed in the early 1900s as England confronted social changes not too dissimilar to America’s current political turmoil.
As industrialization grew in Europe the voice of the common man increased in political importance, and they demanded that the government should exist to serve the people and not the British elites. They wanted government to play a greater and more active role in the welfare of its citizens instead of the unregulated, laissez-faire, small government agenda of the elites.
In 1909, the Liberal Party that controlled the House of Commons passed the People’s Budget that proposed unprecedented taxes on the lands and incomes of Britain’s wealthy to fund social welfare programs to combat poverty, provide medical care, and improve public education. Unsurprisingly, the out of touch House of Lords rejected the budget.
In response, the Liberal Party proposed legislation to reduce the power of the House of Lords, and soon the People’s Budget and the future of the House of Lords became the main issues of the 1910 general election.
A young Winston Churchill was a major supporter of the People’s Budget, and he relished the battle against the House of Lords.
In April of 1910, a year after it was introduced, the House of Lords approved the People’s Budget, but the damage to their political standing had already been done. In 1910, the Liberal Party retained control of the House of Commons, and began systematically reducing the power of the House of Lords. Initially, they flooded the House of Lords with Liberal Party members, but that was only the beginning.
With the approval of King George V, the Parliament Act of 1911 was signed into law and it revoked the chamber’s veto power over legislation from the House of Commons. The act gave the House of Commons a method for bypassing the House of Lords, and sending legislation directly to the king or queen for approval. In 1949 a second Parliament Act was passed that further diminished the power of the House of Lords.
For over a century, the House of Lords has been a ceremonial entity devoid of political power, but for the previous 600 years it had been the dominant voice in England’s government. Despite being powerless, the House of Lords is still referred to as the upper chamber of parliament. Today, the removal of its powers is regarded as a seminal moment in making England into a more democratic society.
In 2021, American House Democrats have an ambitious and popular legislative agenda not too dissimilar to England’s from a century ago. There are bills for protecting voting rights, providing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented Americans, raising the minimum wage, DC statehood, and providing relief to Americans struggling due to COVID-19; and it is expected that due to the filibuster and its 60 vote requirement, many of these bills will die in the Senate despite the Democrats having a majority.
The egregious obstructionism of Mitch McConnell and the Republican Party is so outlandish and vulgar that it can make people want to believe that the GOP’s destructive, undemocratic behavior is a historical anomaly. Yet tragically this political incivility has long been the norm for the Senate.
Since the 1830s, conservative senators have used the filibuster to grind the Senate to a halt and prevent the passage of legislation. During this era, South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun used the filibuster to defend the institution of slavery against the growing abolitionist movement reshaping the North. Calhoun was an unabashed racist who considered slavery to be a “positive good” and whose constituency consisted of white Americans who owned land and people and not the enslaved Black Americans who made up over half of the state’s population.
And for at least as long, the Senate has served as an impediment to progress and democracy, and it still employs the filibuster to kill legislation that promotes racial equality. The filibuster was frequently used during Jim Crow as Americans attempted to end our apartheid state, and unsurprisingly Republicans embraced the filibuster to undermine the legislative agenda of America’s first Black president.
And just this week, Senate minority leader McConnell threatened a “scorched-earth Congress” if Democrats attempted to abolish the filibuster.
As it happens, that was the same week that the House passed the American Dream and Promise Act and the Farm Workforce Modernization Act that provides a pathway to citizenship for certain undocumented Americans, but due to the filibuster and conservative obstructionism it is unlikely that either bill will make it out of the Senate and become laws. Popular legislation that promotes racial equality and voting rights will again die in the Senate.
But while the Senate’s impeding of democracy has been the American norm for two centuries, this does not mean it has to go on forever.
The Senate is out of touch and far too often exists to defend the minority positions on voting rights, immigration, gender equality, and income inequality. The Senate could not even bring itself to convict President Donald Trump in his second impeachment trial after he orchestrated an attack on the Capitol, despite the overwhelming support of the American people.
If the Senate continues to represent the will of the elites and not the people, the only way to advance our democracy might be to turn it into America’s House of Lords by reducing its political power and relegating it to ceremonial duties. It has happened before, and it could happen again.