George Washington described the Senate as a "cooling saucer", where legislation could be deliberated without the same pressures of public opinion as the House, much like a saucer would be used to cool hot tea. 

Today, a more apt description for the Senate would be a saucer where legislation is poured in and evaporates.

Some argue the role of the Senate is to create a higher threshold for laws governing all 50 states, whereas others say procedural hurdles in the chamber give the minority too much power to stop widely popular legislation.

To help shed some light on this debate, I spoke with Steven S. Smith, Professor of Political Science at Washington University and one of the foremost experts on congressional politics, to discuss the historical role of the Senate, how today's Senate is different, and what could or should be done to make the body more effective.

You can listen to the full episode via the player below, on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you might get your podcasts.

Show Notes

The Founder's original vision for the Senate was one cut off from the popular vote entirely, where senators were elected by state legislatures, as opposed to directly by constituents. The desire for institutions which would buffer government from wild swings in public opinion was partly elitist in nature, but also came from the study of Athens, a direct democracy which failed after succumbing to mob rule.

With a constitutional amendment providing for the direct election of senators ratified in 1913, the body was still kept partially insulated from short term changes in public sentiment with longer terms than the house. The chamber also kept procedures designed to create a higher threshold for approval than a simple majority, the most notorious of which is the filibuster.

While today's temporary swing in public opinion has moved in the direction of instituting simple majority rule in the Senate with the elimination of the filibuster, Smith argues this may be misguided. Today's Senate is characterized by its tendency to obstruct legislation rather than pass it, but is also a place where moderates matter.

Senators such as Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski were able to prevent the most partisan in their party from dictating the agenda under the Trump administration, much as Senators Manchin and Sinema are doing under Biden. Simply removing the filibuster and other procedures that prevent legislation from passing with a simple majority would cut moderates out of the conversation entirely, leaving the party's extremes in control of government.

In this sense, the cooling power of the Senate still prevails. If they're getting less done now than in years prior, it may simple be that things are too hot.