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Opinion | Joe Manchin Is a Symptom, but It’s the Senate That’s Sick

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Seventy-two percent of likely voters, according to the left-leaning polling group Data for Progress, want the federal government to increase its tax incentives for solar, wind and other clean energy projects. Sixty-nine percent of likely voters want the government to take steps to make electric vehicles more affordable for more people. And 60 percent of likely voters support policies that would regulate carbon emissions and force power plants to clean up their act.

But Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia does not support these policies. He said so, last week, in an announcement that essentially sank the Democratic Party’s legislative plans to fight climate change. “Political headlines are of no value to the millions of Americans struggling to afford groceries and gas as inflation soars to 9.1 percent,” a spokesman for Manchin said. “Senator Manchin believes it’s time for leaders to put political agendas aside, re-evaluate and adjust to the economic realities the country faces to avoid taking steps that add fuel to the inflation fire.”

There is plenty of blame to go around for the death of the Democratic climate agenda. There’s Manchin, of course, but there’s also the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, who played an admittedly bad hand poorly in an incredibly high-stakes game. His mistakes last summer — signing but not honoring an agreement with Manchin to devise a scaled-down version of Build Back Better — may have doomed the whole process.

Then there’s President Biden, whose vaunted skills as the one-time master of the Senate could not penetrate the venal self-interest of the senator from West Virginia, who happens to have a lot of money invested in a fossil fuel brokerage company he helped found. And there is, of course, the Republican Party, whose total opposition to climate action is what made Manchin the pivotal vote to begin with.

Above all, there’s the Senate itself.

It may seem odd to blame the institution for this outcome. It’s not as if there is any alternative to passing legislation through both chambers of Congress. But it’s also no accident that climate legislation has repeatedly been passed in the House only to collapse in the Senate. It is no accident that, as a general rule, the upper chamber is where popular legislation goes to die or, if it isn’t killed, where it is passed in truncated and diminished form, like the recent (and lackluster) bipartisan gun bill. The Senate was built with this purpose in mind. It was designed to keep the people in check — to put limits on the reach of democracy and the scope of representation.

This is separate from the issue of equal state representation, the constitutional rule by which every state gets two senators, regardless of population. If James Madison had somehow prevailed at the Constitutional Convention and secured a Senate with proportional representation, the chamber would still work to stymie popular legislation.

The reason for this is simple: American-style bicameralism with its small and powerful upper house works in most cases to put a tight lid on the interests and aspirations of the public and its representatives.

That was the point. Many of the framers of the Constitution were as interested in suppressing the democratic experimentation of the previous decade as they were concerned with building a more powerful national government. The two, in fact, were connected. “Most of the men who assembled at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 were also convinced that the national government under the Articles of Confederation was too weak to counter the rising tide of democracy in the states,” the historian Terry Bouton writes in “Taming Democracy: ‘The People,’ the Founders, and the Troubled Ending of the American Revolution.”

As Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts argued in the first days of the convention, “The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy. The people do not want virtue; but are the dupes of pretended patriots.” Virginia’s Edmund Randolph concurred, observing that the “evils under which the United States labored” were found in the “turbulence and follies of democracy.”

And what were these turbulences and follies of democracy? Bouton argues that they were the popular efforts to make the American economy more favorable to the average person. “Popular calls for a revaluation of war-debt certificates, bans on for-profit corporations, progressive taxation, limits on land speculation, and every other measure to make property more equal promised to take wealthy away from the elite,” Bouton writes. “The same was true of the popular resistance that halted tax collection or frustrated creditors in their attempts to foreclose on their debtors.”

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Some of the most ardent nationalists were also speculators who had wagered heavily on land and war-debt certificates and feared that democracy would undermine, or even destroy, their investments in property. This elite fear of financial ruin was at its most acute in Pennsylvania, where ordinary people had written and implemented the most radically democratic constitution in the new nation.

The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 created a unicameral legislature with a weak executive branch composed of a presidential and advisory council. It eliminated most property requirements for voting and holding office, abolished imprisonment for debt and established a system for public education supported by taxes on property holdings. The state would hold elections every year, with term limits for lawmakers and reapportionment every seven years on the basis of census returns.

Founding-era attacks on “mob rule” — often repurposed by modern-day reactionaries to oppose greater democracy — were very often about these efforts to level American society in accordance with the principles of the revolution. And indeed, to the elite gentry of Pennsylvania, this new constitution was a disaster.

“They said,” writes Bouton, “that the democratic government would ‘go to the devil for popularity’ and was creating an earthly ‘damnation’ filled with ‘ruin, poverty, famine and distress, with idleness, vice, corruption of morals, and every species of evil.”

A government of “plain men” by “plain men” was just too much for them to bear. In 1787, other similarly situated men in other states gathered in Philadelphia to do something about it.

“The Constitution effectively outlawed most of the other popular reforms that ordinary Pennsylvanians had tried to enact,” Bouton notes. It barred states from enacting most forms of debt relief, from allowing debt arbitration (so that debtors could pay with goods rather than specie) and from issuing paper currencies, which destroyed “state-run land banks and the system of public, long-term, low-cost credit.”

And to stymie democratic impulses in the popularly elected House of Representatives, the framers created a powerful Senate that could, as Alexander Hamilton argued, form a “barrier against every pernicious innovation.”

Two-hundred and thirty-five years later and the United States Senate still works to stymie and stifle the “pernicious innovations” that might help ordinary Americans, or preserve the planet for their children and grandchildren.

Americans democratized the election of senators in 1913, but they’ve never addressed the power of the Senate itself. They may never. Practical barriers aside, Americans don’t often think of changing the fundamentals of our political system. But we should. There is nothing about the concept of divided powers that demands a powerful, aristocratic upper chamber. There’s nothing about federalism that requires an elitist check on deliberation and representation. It is not for nothing that a couple of years before the United States ratified the 17th Amendment, the United Kingdom stripped its House of Lords of the power to veto most legislation. Perhaps it’s finally time for us to follow suit.

At least as far as the Senate went, the framers chose property and the interests of the few over democracy and the interests of the many. Given the scope and scale of our problems, are we sure we’re happy with their decision?



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