Friday, May 20, 2005

The Cup And The Saucer

There's a very silly anecdote making the rounds that's now been reported at Andrew Sullivan's website. Here's how he (or actually, a reader) puts it:
There was a famous dinner meeting between Washington and Jefferson at which they deliberated the need for a bicameral legislature, with Jefferson suggesting the superiority of a one-chamber model. There are many different accounts of the words exchanged, but they are all something like this: After much discussion around the tea table, Washington turned sharply to Jefferson and said, "You, sir, have just demonstrated the superior excellence of a bi-cameral system by your own hand." "Oh, how is that?" asked Jefferson. "You have poured your tea from your cup out into the saucer to cool. We want the bi-cameral system to cool things."
The message that's meant by this--I'm not making this up--is somehow we should keep the Senate's filibuster.

Okay, let's assume somewhere at some time in the past 225 years, two people actually pronounced words and performed actions that were similar to what you just read above, and we'll further pretend the one in favor of two chambers is named Washington. Is there any way to reasonably interpret this story as backing a Senate procedural rule?

First, let's not forget the House used to have a filibuster, until it (happily) got rid of it in the late 1800s. So, according to the present-day interpretation of this anecdote, I guess all those decades the House and Senate shared a procedural rule, they were thwarting Washington's bi-cameral intentions.

Second, when it comes to passing legislation--Congress's main job--sure, bi-camerality comes into play. But there are instances when the Constitution says screw the bi-cameral system, we only want some action from the Senate. A classic example would be the Article II presidential power to name new judges, where all the Constitution asks is Advise and Consent from the Senate--all saucer, no cup, General Washington.

Third, most importantly, there are clear distinctions between the House and Senate written into the Constitution, and, in fact, the Senate is meant to be the more deliberative body. But these differences have nothing to do with any procedural rules, since both chambers are allowed to set them any way they please, and nothing anywhere says they must be different from each other to please the anecdotal Washington. No, here are the clear differences: Representatives can be 25, Senators must be at least 30. Representatives represent a portion of a state, Senators represent the whole state. Representatives serve 2 years, Senators 6. And, very big, the people vote directly for Representatives, but not for Senators. The main thing in common between the two bodies, however, is they regularly have votes, and the majority wins (with certain rare exceptions). So, while this anecdote doesn't tell you anything about filibusters, it sure is a great argument in favor of repealing the 17th Amendment.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

How do you know the cup is the House and the saucer is the Senate?

11:32 AM, May 20, 2005  

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