As Charles C.W. Cooke anticipated at National Review, progressive gun controllers attacked the institution of the Senate after a background check expansion bill failed last week. Most prominently, Ezra Klein criticized the chamber as “wildly undemocratic”, as if this fact is damning prima facie. Klein barely mentions why it was built this way.
Our nation is partly national and partly federal. Thus, the Constitution retains the states as mediators between the citizenry and its federal government. Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut argued in 1788 that “[a]n equality of voices was conformable to the federal principle and was necessary to secure the Small States ag. the large.” This is still very relevant today, despite the transition of large swaths of people from the Northeast to the Sun Belt and Midwest.
Today, the largest states include California and New York. These states overwhelmingly support gun control, especially in the Senate. Indeed, larger states supported the gun bill more than smaller states—35 ayes and 17 nays from the 25 largest, with 29 nays and 21 ayes from the smallest. While Klein and other progressives see this as weak point in the system, Ellsworth addressed this at the Constitutional Convention: to deprive the states of equality “was at once cutting the body of America in two…”
The gun control defeat proved that a supermajority of the states did not support this bill for a variety of reasons; that, however, did not mean it couldn’t have passed with a simple majority.
At the same time, the original intention of the Senate was to check the passions of the people. James Madison himself explained that a check on the “fickleness and passion” of the populace “would be to select a portion of enlightened citizens, whose limited number, and firmness might seasonably interpose ag. impetuous councils.” The very structure of the Senate required such compromises as Toomey-Manchin, but it demanded even more than what Majority Leader Reid and President Obama were willing to give.
Deliberation is the goal of the Senate, but the institution is in fact even more democratic than its original conception. Until the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913, the Constitution required state legislatures to appoint senators. Last week, the Senate proved that some national priorities are more important than others; gun control couldn’t muster a supermajority of 60 votes in a time of stagnant growth and high unemployment.
The urgency of the Newtown crisis has subsided, leaving Americans less frantic about mass shootings that the bill would not have prevented.
It is wrong to simply view the Senate as “undemocratic.” Rather, it preserves the notion of federalism. Simultaneously, the chamber encourages and requires deliberation, which certainly occurred. The problem is not in the structure; it is with the political decisions of our leaders.
Senator Reid required a 60-vote threshold for all nine amendments to the gun bill to prevent pro-gun changes and allowed for 30 hours of debate. God forbid the American people find out what’s in the law!
The Senate has done its job. The Democrats will just have to be more practically alarming next time.