At the time of the founding, the Senate was selected by state legislatures rather than direct popular vote, fulfilling the original intention of a detached, collegial body to “temper the passions” of the popularly chosen House of Representatives.
Even after the Constitution was amended to universally place Senators at the mercy of the electorate, the body remained more bipartisan. As recently as the mid-90s, leaders like Bob Dole and George Mitchell would meet regularly to forge agreements and remain the “grown ups” of the American political process.
Today, Mitch McConnell is willing to publicly declare obstructionism for political gain as his “priority.” Both leaders accepted their role as no more than fellow partisan combatants in a 60 Minutes interview this weekend.
One explanation may be the heightened partisanship in the House. Most House members occupy relatively safe seats and maintain their jobs by running to the extreme of their political party. Even if a Representative is not overly radical, once in office, House members are expected to vote in lockstep with party leadership, creating a more radical record.
In many, if not most, states the most logical stepping stone to the Senate is the House. With a few exceptions, most Governors view the Senate as a backward move — robbing the candidate of executive power and adding the stink of the Beltway to a promising young governor.
And we’re already seeing the effect of this polarization. Todd Akin is a typical Congressman, espousing the radical positions that net him over 60% of the vote in Missouri’s Second Congressional District. And today he has a decent, though unlikely, shot at representing Missouri in the Senate.
When the Senatorial “farm team” is increasingly comprised of ideologues only capable of winning philosophically homogeneous districts, we shouldn’t be too shocked to see the Senate lose its status as the collegial chamber.
As a closing thought, let me be clear that I’m not advocating a return to the indirect selection of Senators (which some Tea Partiers do) because this would likely super charge the problem — with partisan state legislators selecting the same promising House members to serve as Senators. This can only be solved with a comprehensive solution to gerrymandered districts, and while some states have experimented with non-partisan solutions, I’m not holding my breath for universal adoption of a policy that could put an end to an unfair advantage held by one party or the other.