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Abolish the Senate?: A look at partisan warfare and congressional gridlock in the time of COVID-19

Looking at solutions to the paralysis gripping Washington D.C.

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There is growing frustration about the partisan divide that deadlocks Congress and prevents it from addressing significant problems like the COVID-19 pandemic. Some have pointed to unequal representation in the U.S. Senate and the invocation of the filibuster as the source of that gridlock. But Morris P. Fiorina, political science professor and Hoover Institution fellow, believes the problems stem from the history and structure of the current party system.

Critics describing the undemocratic nature of the Senate take issue with the fact that six senators from California, Texas and Florida represent the same number of people as the 62 senators from the smallest 31 states, according to The New York Times. This imbalance of power has resulted in a Wyoming citizen having 70 times more political power in the Senate than a Californian citizen, according to “Let The People Pick The President” by Jesse Wegman. 

Additionally, the filibuster, which allows a minority of senators to block legislation by continuing debate on a bill, has been considered another contributor to the deadlock. A minority party can use the filibuster to kill a bill, as the only way to stop a filibuster is to invoke cloture, which requires three-fifths of the Senate — 60 senators  — to vote in favor of ending debate. The only time in the past decade that a party had 60 seats was a brief period in 2009, according to MSNBC

People in both parties have called for an end to the filibuster to allow laws to be more easily enacted. Fiorina argues that the filibuster and the undemocratic nature of the Senate are not necessarily the source of today’s partisan gridlock. Instead, he suggest looking deeper, pointing to the current party system as the problem, and believes it is important to look at history to understand why the American government is so deadlocked. 

Though the filibuster has existed for over 200 years, it has only recently been used with such regularity. 

“[The filibuster] is undemocratic,” Fiorina said in an interview with The Daily. “And historically, it was really used only under extreme circumstances. It became sort of an ordinary procedural tactic in the 70s.”  Fiorina ultimately believes that the filibuster “makes a mockery of the notions of the Senate as a deliberative body.” 

This is because the two major political parties have changed, making gridlock a feature of America’s political institutions.

“We used to have two big heterogeneous parties,” Fiorina said. “Anybody finds it difficult to believe there used to be liberal Republicans. . . and there were very conservative Democrats.”

Indeed, The Pew Research Center found that from 1973-2012, Republicans and Democrats became more partisan and polarized. Party members stopped supporting views of the other party and forming bipartisan compromises. Because of this process, referred to as “sorting,” liberals are more likely to be in the Democratic party, and conservatives in the Republican party.

Prior to the 1970s, liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats crossed party lines to form coalitions with members of the other party. Bipartisan committees and coalitions were able to pass laws that would remain in place even if a different party took the majority. 

This changed in the 1960s with the emergence of the civil rights movement, according to Al Jazeera. The Democratic party championed civil rights and thus alienated Southern members. Southern conservatives left the Democratic party, and northeastern liberals left the Republican party. And recent elections have seen control over both houses of Congress flip between these highly partisan parties. 

“We’re in an era where every election means the institutions are up for grabs, then the game is different. The Republicans and Democrats are in the minority and don’t want to do anything,” Fiorina said. “They don’t want to do anything that makes the other party look good. So they’ll oppose something they favor if they think the other party is going to get credit for it . . . and so we’re in this  pathological state, a period in American politics where because we have these two really sorted parties, we just simply ping pong from one control to another.”  

In his book, “Unstable Majorities,” Fiorina states that as parties become more homogeneous, “political issues become more partisan and divisive.”  He discusses the politicization of every movement, and writes that “once the advocates for a particular issue became exclusively associated with one party or the other, balance and moderation were the casualties.”

Because of this partisan divide, new bills are usually passed along party lines, and “passing anything important in a democracy like ours on really narrow margins is troubling. The great progressive innovations in America have typically been passed with bipartisan majorities,” Fiorina said. 

For example, the individual mandate for Americans to purchase healthcare insurance was originally proposed by Republicans in the 1990s and more recently advocated by Mitt Romney. However, the GOP opposed the policy when Obama proposed it in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2009 . 

The ACA passed on a strict party line vote. Fiorina believes that because the ACA was not passed with Republican support, it continues to be an issue as Republicans have attempted to repeal the ACA over 70 times since it was enacted, almost doing so when Donald Trump took office, despite being the party that originally proposed the idea.

Moreover, the Democrats were able to pass the bill only when they briefly had a 60-seat majority in the Senate that enabled them to defeat a filibuster. Without that supermajority, the ACA would have failed. Some people have advocated that the Senate must be abolished because of this deadlock, yet Fiorina simply does not believe this is realistic. 

“The Senate is not going to be changed. Article V is pretty insuperable. . . I think because [it is] almost impossible to change features of the American system,” Fiorina said. Article V mandates that no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.

Instead of focusing on the Senate, Fiorina argues for a different overhaul: the current party system. “A country as big and heterogeneous as us doesn’t do well with two cohesive sorted parties that we have . . . there’s just too much distance between the parties to make policy,” Fiorina said. 

Fiorina points to some countries in Europe, like Germany, where voters can choose between multiple strong parties, not just Republican or Democrat. He states that if a voter wants to strongly oppose gun control, they must support the Republican party because there is no other option. This reinforces the partisan sorting that causes gridlock. Fiorina wants to see a multi-party system where voters can choose to support multiple parties that represent their values. 

“The only way that could happen is if we can somehow destroy the existing party system, which is what I’ve advocated,” Fiorina said. “I’d like to see both parties crash.

“And, I like to see something come out of the ashes,” he added. “A party sort of left of center but not progressive Democrats and the right of center but not Tea Party republicans get together and say, ‘okay, what are the problems and what are the possible solutions? What can we agree on?’ Instead of having these party wars they fight right now.”

Contact Sahil Venkatesan at sahiljv15 ‘at’ gmail.com.

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Sahil Venkatesan is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop.