A common Progressive-era complaint advanced that the Constitution’s framers were overly suspicious of democracy. George Norris, a leading Progressive Senator, bluntly argued in the 1920s and 1930s that while the Constitution was an advance in democracy for its time, it created too many checks and balances on majority will, it created too many barriers to legislation in the modern era. (He thus advocated legislative unicameralism and opposed activist judicial review, among other things.)
Among the current body of U.S. Senators, Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is certainly the intellectual favorite of many liberals in the country, and she is already being spoken of as a potential Democratic presidential candidate in 2020. The former Harvard law school professor and consumer protection advocate has a great command of the issues, but her ideological commitments undermine her abilities, making her less effective as a legislator, and an often insufficiently decorous member of the U.S. Senate. Now that she has become a cause célèbre in the matter of Senator Jeff Sessions’ nomination to be Attorney General, the rebukes she is receiving from Republicans will come back to haunt them.
The American people have learned much about the Electoral College since the November election. Much has been learned about the origins, evolution and contemporary functioning of our system of presidential elections. We have debated the merits of our system versus allowing a simple national popular vote. We have seen an unprecedented campaign to try to get electors to vote against their pledge. And some have tried to instruct us on the nuances of the Founding environment that created our unique electoral system.
But among all the good information and honest debates have arisen a misleading half-truth aimed at undermining the Electoral College.
Law professor Paul Finkelman ominously opines that Americans would be “disgusted” if they knew the real origin of the Electoral College was in protecting slavery.
Two untenable arguments, and one constitutional solution, surround the debate roiling over Justice Antonin Scalia’s successor. One argument, from the Right, is that President Obama is duty-bound, with nearly a year left in his term, not to appoint a successor at all—a claim with no constitutional basis and whose supposed authority in custom is a phantasm. The second, from the Left, is that the Senate’s duty is reflexively to confirm whomever he selects. Yet the Senate is not the executive’s Human Resources Department, confined to checking references and résumés.
Peggy Noonan recently suggested that “elites are often the last to see their system is under siege. ‘It couldn’t be, I’ve done so well.’” There is much to this idea, especially in a nation like America where many are, in fact, doing very well, and are often socially isolated from others who are not doing so well. Near zero interest rates have flooded the stock market with money, and that, among other things, has been good for the wealthy. Outside of that, however, things are tougher, and not only economically. Because Americans are increasingly isolated socially and economically, our governing class often has trouble seeing this reality.
Our system was supposed to be designed to ensure regular contact between elites and the common citizen.
For reasons known only to their coaches, the Seahawks decided against going “beast-mode” at the end of last night’s Super Bowl. Instead of running the unstoppable Marshawn Lynch, they flubbed a quick in-route and lost the game in the last seconds. So the Patriots weren’t faced with the challenge of stopping Lynch when it mattered. And that raises to mind a missed opportunity for another Lynch, Loretta Lynch, Obama’s nominee to be Attorney General and chief law enforcement officer of the land. This Lynch, however, has been given the ball. In what some thought might be a Judiciary Committee Superbowl on her nomination, instead turned out to be a fizzle for the constitutionalists. Lynch proved she can shed tackles also (although they were arm-tackles), while making the Republicans sound more like the press-defiant, laconic Marshawn Lynch.
The much-awaited argument in Noel Canning, arising over purported recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, was a bit of a yawner (transcript here). And it won’t be a big test of originalism, textualism, etc: If (as here) the government doesn’t have an argument from text, or structure, or history, or functionality, what does it matter? And if the Senate was in session anyhow, why are we arguing about recess appointments? You don’t have to follow the argument. Just count the lines in the transcript: the justices let Miguel Estrada, who made that…
NLRB v. Noel Canning is to be argued tomorrow (or today, depending on when you read this). The Court has ordered extended argument (90 minutes), and there’s an interesting twist: fifteen minutes on the respondents’ side have been given to Senator Mitch McConnell and 44 other Senators. Appearing as amici, the Senators insist that the Senate was in fact in session when the disputed recess appointments were made. If that’s right, the two questions that have engendered so much heated dispute—the question of intra- versus inter-session “recess(es),” and the question of whether the executive power to make such appointments covers…
The Senate occupies a unique place as the fulcrum of the constitutional order. The filibuster does not occupy a unique place as the fulcrum of the Senate. The course the body took Thursday—which limited the use of the device in presidential nominations—will be added to the growing list of precedents to be avenged in due course, but the filibuster should not be inflated to quasi-constitutional status it does not, and probably ought not, enjoy.