Sigmund Freud described America as “the most grandiose experiment the world has seen.” But “I am afraid it is not going to be a success.” For the American experiment to succeed, the Senate must be a saucer. Given recent developments, is the saucer broken?
In his Farewell Address of 1796, George Washington referred to the new republic as an “experiment” in self-government. It’s designed to operate like a triangle with three interlocking points – liberty requires virtue, virtue requires religion, and religion requires liberty. The experiment’s success hinged on religion being taken seriously.
This doesn’t mean the framers were all Christians. There were theists, deists, and skeptics. Most of them shared a Judeo-Christian understanding of conscience. They saw good conscience as creating virtuous people. It did this by defending as well as accusing us (Rom.2:15). A healthy conscience defends virtuous behavior while judging vices. A corrupted conscience flips the equation. When subjected to passions and impulses, it defends my bad behavior while accusing others of being the problem. A corrupted conscience makes us blind to our faults, as Jeremiah warned (Jer.17: 8-9).
This is why the framers created a Senate differently constituted from the House so it would be less subject to popular passions and impulses. “The use of the Senate,” wrote James Madison in Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, “is to consist in its proceedings with more coolness, with more system and with more wisdom, than the popular branch.” George Washington pictured the Senate as the saucer that cools the tea of the House’s passions. It’s an apt metaphor, with the filibuster helping Congress “cool it,” keeping conscience clean. It’s also an apt metaphor as two recent developments – sequestration and curtailing the filibuster – indicate the saucer is broken.
The sequester is a series of annual spending cuts set in motion when the so called “Supercommittee” could not agree on $1.5 trillion in savings over a 10-year period. Congress abdicated its budgetary responsibilities, allowing cross-the-board cuts to kick in while each party accused the other of being the problem. So much for virtue.
Then on November 21st, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid held a party-line vote disposing of filibuster rules. For the nation’s first 118 years, there were no limits on debate in the Senate. After 1917, cutting off debate (cloture) required a two-thirds majority. The Senate remained the saucer as 60 votes still required lawmakers to cool it. That’s no longer the case.
Neither party appears to be acting in good conscience. Republicans are upset about the filibuster rule changes, but they have been guilty of recently abusing the dilatory tactics of filibusters. Democrats did the same when they were the minority. In 2005, then-Senator Joe Biden warned a Republican Senate majority against using “nuclear option” of filibuster. It “abandons America’s sense of fair play. I pray God when the Democrats take back control, we don’t make the kind of naked power grab you are doing.”
The tragedy is that the Senate is no longer the saucer cooling the tea. “If Congress wasn’t broken before,” writes Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, “it certainly is now.” He claims that changing the filibuster rules effectively “turned the Senate into the House.”1 This renders the Senate subject to passions and vindictiveness.
Philip Rieff writes how a culture survives principally by the power of its center institutions to “bind and loose men in the conduct of their affairs.” Bind and loose are biblical terms for properly exercising power. The Senate is a center institution responsible for properly exercising power. Sequestration and curtailing the filibuster are examples of improperly exercising power. They mark the demise of the experiment. “The death of a culture begins when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling,” warns Rieff, “first of all to the cultural elites themselves.”2 Senators are some of America’s elites. When they keep score and act vindictively rather than virtuously, the experiment in self-government is broken.
If all this seems too abstract, consider another center institution – marriage. Imagine a marriage where the couple cannot agree to live within their means, similar to sequester. It happens, but it’s a sign of a dysfunctional marriage. Imagine a marriage where the stronger mate forces closure of unresolved issues. It happens, but it’s a sign of a broken marriage. Sequestration and curtailing the filibuster are signs of a broken Senate.
At the age of 16, Washington copied out by hand a little booklet titled, 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. It’s based on a set of rules composed by French Jesuits in 1595. The Jesuits know scripture. They understand the role of conscience in cultivating virtue. The 110th Rule reads: “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.” The Senate might benefit from reading this booklet. For if the saucer is not fixed, the grandest experiment in self-government that the world has ever seen is probably not going to succeed.
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1 Dana Milbank, “The Democrats’ Naked Power Grab,” The Washington Post, November 22, 2013.
2 Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2006 Edition), p. 14.