Biden’s double- digit lead in the country and smaller majorities in battleground states, suggests up to ten states could be in play. Research by MSNBC has revealed a link, between the popular vote for the Presidential candidate and the number of Senate seats gained. Clinton won the popular vote in 2016, and the Democrats gained two senate seats, Obama in 2008 and 2012 added two and sevenseats respectively and Bush in 2004 added four Republican seats. Reagan’s victory in 1980 added a remarkable 12 seats for the Republican Party.
For the Democrats, the immediate priorities are Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and N. Carolina. A significant Biden victory would raise expectations and bring other states such as, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, and South Carolina into play.
The Senate is a fascinating but dated institution. It provides a window into the thinking of the Founding fathers, helps explain the dysfunctional politics of “modern” America and underlines why winning control of the upper house of the Congress is vital, if a Biden presidency is to ease the legislative logjam, halt the slide towards authoritarianism, and rebalance the composition of the courts and federal departments.
The Founding fathers had remarkable prescience. They feared, the people and democracy – for them rule by the mob, the idea of political parties, the possibility of a President “from hell”, rural America being dominated by urban areas and the prospect of the 13 States being overwhelmed by the greater powers of the national government. Incredibly, these concerns influence how the Senate operates today.
Established under the Constitution, the Senate, convened for the first time in 1879 in the refurbished Federal Hall in New York City, and was modelled on the governance of the Colonial era and the state senates that had evolved since independence. Janes Madison said: “The Senate’s role is to protect the people against their rulers and protect the people against the transient impressions into which they themselves might be led”. The Framers of the Constitution created the Senate to protect the rights of individual states and safeguard minority opinion in this new system of government.
Membership of the Senate requires a minimum age of 30 years, citizenship of the US for nine years and residency of the State you are seeking to represent. The name comes from the ancient Roman Senate (Latin, Senatus), an assembly of the senior or highest council and considered as wiser and more experienced members of the society or ruling class. The literal meaning of the word is the Assembly of Elders.
The Founding fathers thought the Senate could be a check on the popularity of the House of Representatives. Framers of the Constitution arrived at a term of six years. Again, this was a compromise shaped by their fear of democracy. Andrew Hamilton suggested a life term to, “keep the amazing violence and turbulence of the democratic spirit in check”. This idea, of the House of Representatives representing the people as an expression of democracy and the Senate representing the States, as an expression of federalism, is of more than historic interest as it represents a major fault line in American politics and governance.
Until the 17th amendment of the Constitution in 1913, election to the Senate was indirect, nominated by the State legislatures. The members are now directly elected by voters. Each state, regardless of size or population, is represented by two senators. This is a divisive issue. The ten smallest states with a joint population of nine million people return 20 Senators, but California with 39 million people has only two! Wyoming with 560,000 people has the same clout in the Senate as California. This has further repercussions in the controversial Electoral College, which decides the Presidency, and where 100 or nearly 20 per cent of the 538 delegate votes, are based on the number of members in the Senate, which disproportionately favours, small, white, rural, Republican States. This clash between the popular vote and the Electoral College, caused bitter controversy after Trumps victory in 2016.
The Senate shares, with the House of Representatives, responsibility for all law making within the US and the power to declare war. For an act of Congress to be valid, both Houses must approve an identical document. Important powers under, “the advice and consent” provisions of the constitution, are vested in the Senate. These include ratification of Treaties, approval of important public appointments such as those of the President’s Cabinet, Ambassadors, and justices of the Supreme and Federal Courts.
The Senate, acting as a court adjudicates impeachment proceedings, after they have been initiated by the House of Representatives. The trial of President Trump was held in the Senate. The real power of the Senate lies in the ability of the majority party to obstruct appointments and block legislation of political opponents and loyally support those of your own party. A dysfunctional Congress has produced no legislation of importance in the past three years. But a partisan Senate has been able to assist Trump with some outrageous appointments and a purge of Democratic leaning justices from the courts.
The Senate can also hold hearings and call witnesses, often under subpoena. These can turn into to spectacular media events generating significant public interest, something rarely seen in Westminster.
Reflecting both the representation of the Senate, its history, geography and it’s in-built conservatism, there have been only ten African Americans elected to the Senate in over 200 years, the first appointed – not elected – was Hiram Rhodes Revels in 1870. In today’s Senate, there are only 19 female members out of 100.
The Founding Fathers were obsessed with building checks and balances into their system of Government. But in modern America, partisan politics, has created dysfunctionality and total gridlock. Washington government is no longer functioning. Biden must win the Presidency and the Senate, while holding the House of Representatives, if America is to be rescued from collapsing further into political anarchy.