Most often, proposals for reform are what we might call (following the political scientist Daniel Stid) Wilsonian rather than Madisonian: Implicitly following the advice of Woodrow Wilson, they aim to remake Congress along the model of a European parliament, where the majority party gets its way on everything until the public throws it out, rather than to revive Congress along the lines of the role sketched out for it in James Madison’s Constitution, as an institution built to compel accommodation and compromise among competing factions.
It’s worth paying attention, therefore, when a prominent member of Congress diagnoses this problem and proposes some serious, Madisonian solutions. That’s what Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska does in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal.
Sasse takes assorted would-be reformers to task for focusing on the filibuster, for instance, noting that “ending the filibuster would allow political parties to change the direction of the country dramatically with a succession of shifting 51-49 votes. That’s a path to even more polarization and instability.” Instead, he argues for a series of ideas meant to re-ignite debate and legislative work.
Some of his particular proposals are better than others. He starts with the notion of allowing some committee work to happen away from the cameras—an idea I’ve championed too, but it’s easier for me to say than for a politician who could face real costs for criticizing excess transparency. His case for serious budget reform is also very important (especially the idea that “we ought to end the distinction between appropriation and authorization. Legislation that authorizes federal action should also appropriate the money to pay for it”). And giving committees some control over floor time (as some state legislatures do) would make an enormous positive difference in both houses of Congress. I’m less sold on a single 12-year term for Senators—though I’m open to something along those lines for Supreme Court justices, maybe with a longer term, and then re-assignment to a federal appeals court, as one of Sasse’s Senate colleagues once proposed.