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You Don't Need to Worry About the Senate Becoming a Second House of Representatives

Even if the filibuster is eliminated.
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The U.S. Senate chamber c. 1873. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

The U.S. Senate chamber c. 1873. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

One of the concerns raised in the wake of Senate Democrats' elimination of the filibuster on executive branch appointments last week is that it would turn the U.S. Senate into just a second House of Representatives. That is, it is possible that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's move is just the first in a lengthy war against minority power in the upper chamber. Soon filibusters on legislation or Supreme Court justices are banished, then amendments on bills are curtailed, and then the Senate is just a quarter-sized replica of the House with slightly grayer hair. Witness David Brooks:

[I]f you take away that 60-vote thing, starting now with some of the nominations, but probably going within a couple of years to the Supreme Court nominations and maybe the legislation, you basically are turning the Senate into the House. You're basically beginning the erosion of what makes the Senate special.

In a great post on last week's events, Greg Koger explains why further elimination of the filibuster is an unlikely scenario, at least in the short term. Perhaps it could arise further down the road when there is unified party government again and the minority party in the Senate really is grinding the government to a halt. But until then, there's just not much value in it.

But let's say it does happen. Would the Senate be just like the House?

No, it really wouldn't, for reasons that have much to do with the way the Founders set up the two chambers in the first place. Senators are, of course, elected on six-year terms. Only a third of the Senate is up for re-election in any given cycle, automatically giving that chamber a different outlook on political accountability and vulnerability from its counterpart.

Just the very nature of the body means that it will tend to be populated by members with more political experience and usually greater age.

Similarly, representation is obviously very different across the two chambers. Senators represent entire states as opposed to individual districts. This gives them different perspectives from most House members' and different incentives regarding representation. It also creates a notable representational skew toward smaller states. All House districts are of roughly equal size, while a Senator may represent as few as 500,000 people or as many as 38,000,000. A resident of Wyoming gets a lot more representation in the Senate than a Californian does.

The different sizes of the chambers are also relevant. The reason that the House has historically been a less individualistic chamber with stronger parties and committees and more stringent rules regarding legislative debates is because that's what you have to do when you have a large deliberative chamber. Four hundred thirty five people simply can not all know each other well or conduct civilized debates without strict rules. This is a principal of large numbers rather than a commentary on declining civility. In a chamber of 100, however, where the membership is more stable, friendships, personalities, and reputations may become more relevant in organizing legislative business. The smaller chamber will always be the more collegial one and the one that allows more open debate.

Just the very nature of the body—smaller than the House with less frequent elections—means that it will tend to be populated by members with more political experience and usually greater age. (And the constitutional requirement that senators be at least 30, while representatives may be as young as 25, helps along those lines, too.)

For all these reasons, even a Senate run under uniform principles of majority rule would behave very differently and serve very different constituencies than the House would. Legislation would still receive a thorough airing prior to becoming law, and there would still be a bias against action in the federal government. The main difference would be that the minority party would be largely dealt out of the game.