Out of America: A plague on your house, dear senators

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The Independent Online
WASHINGTON - What is the most misleading, frustrating, exasperating, mind-warping and ultimately impossible job for a reporter in the US capital? There can only be one answer: covering Congress. And so, in the interests of making the journalist's lot a happier one, and the no less negligible matter of endowing this country with a constitution that works, I have a suggestion - abolish the United States Senate.

This recommendation has not been reached lightly. True, these last have been the nastiest few weeks on Capitol Hill I can remember in more than three years in Washington, as Congress battens down for the mid-term elections; enough to have anyone pondering the merits of dictatorship or absolute monarchy. The House of Representatives is not blameless. But the worst of it has been in the Senate, which a few people can still refer to with a straight face as 'the world's greatest deliberative body'.

Some samples: the Republicans' waste of three days trying to block a crime bill the Senate a few months earlier had approved by 95-4; subsequent filibusters against education funding, health and campaign finance reform; and now the antics of Democratic Senator Ernest 'Fritz' Hollings of South Carolina.

Mr Hollings is chairman of the Commerce Committee, and accordingly can 'hold' (meaning 'delay') relevant legislation for 45 days. For reasons not entirely clear, he has chosen to exercise this power to block ratification of the Gatt treaty, laboured over by 123 countries and favoured by large majorities in both chambers. At the least, he will force the outgoing Senate back for a lame- duck session after the elections on 8 November. Just possibly, he may scupper the Uruguay round single- handed. Up there on Capitol Hill, you never know.

Which is why reporting the place is so hard. If newspapers were regulated like cigarettes, headlines such as 'House bans assault weapons' should come with an asterisk and a health warning pointing out that for the ban to take effect: 1) a similar measure has to be passed by the Senate; 2) a conference of the two chambers must thrash out a single agreed version; 3) this version must be approved by the House and by the Senate. Only then can it be signed (or vetoed) by the President. And which is why, inter alia it has taken six years to pass a crime bill that by common consent, combines the worst of all worlds.

But if it is rough on the reporters, it's worse for the country. Legislating has famously been compared to sausage making: you may enjoy the end product, but steer clear of the manufacturing process. But the US has made the process even more messy by creating - unlike almost every other country - a parliament of two chambers of exactly equal powers, whose party make-up may be entirely different. Checks and balances are the essence of democracy, and distrust of a powerful central authority is ingrained in the American psyche - but was this what the Founding Fathers had in mind ? Not quite.

Under the original US Constitution, the Senate was clearly the junior partner. While House members were directly elected, senators were picked by state legislatures. Only in 1913 was the 17th Amendment passed, providing for election of senators by popular vote, and so to today's wasteful and dysfunctional double system of two chambers, two separate sets of staff and committees, and a double gauntlet which any bill must run to be successful. Thus the argument for abolishing, or at any rate, downgrading one part of it. For any sane observer, there can be only one candidate.

There is much to object to in the House. It has its share of fools, knaves and grandstanders. It can be more destructively partisan than the Senate, and its rules arguably provide too little guarantee of the minority party's rights. But at least it works. A semblance of party discipline prevails; its rules are comprehensible.

Not so the Senate, of excruciating clubbiness, impenetrable procedure and where a determined and bloody-minded minority rules. As the Republicans have shown, 41 out of 100 votes is enough to bring the place to a standstill. Under the Senate's guillotine rules, a majority of 60 is needed to break a filibuster. The Democrats have only 56. Stir in pomposity, self-importance and spectacles such as the Anita Hill- Clarence Thomas hearings, and the case for shutting it down is hard to answer.

Politicians do not see it like that. But Republicans and Democrats alike are playing with fire. These mid-term elections are expected to produce handsome Republican gains. But next time around, who knows ? A plague on all your houses, voters may well say in their fury at a Congress that seems to produce nothing except posturing, graft and gridlock.

If the Democrats find themselves in a minority, they would be less than human if they did not repay the filibusters in kind. The vicious, self-defeating circle would continue. So why not cut the Gordian knot, and scrap the Senate? They never will - but at least you can't filibuster a dream.

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