A little known fact about polymath fussbudget and Founding Father pin-up boy Thomas Jefferson is that he apparently had appalling table manners. And thank goodness he did. His infra dig conduct while strapping on the old feedbag gave us a timeless lesson about why the federal government does what it does. While breakfasting with George Washington, Jefferson deliberately slopped his cup of coffee into a saucer, and that indecorous act of beverage redistribution is now immortalized for making an important point about the United States government that has particular contemporary resonance.1
In addition to liberally splashing his Folgers around the available crockery, Jefferson was pressing Washington about why the Constitutional Convention had opted for a bi-cameral legislature. Tommy-boy had not been at the big bang Philadelphia event—he was off in France putting the moves on Sally Hemings and practicing a little light diplomacy—and he couldn’t see the reason behind a two house Congress. Surely such redundancy just made it harder for the government to get anything done?
In response Washington said, “Why did you just now pour that coffee into your saucer before drinking?” Which was a good thing. If he had actually said what he was most likely thinking—“if that latte stain doesn’t come out, you cheese eating Lothario, you’ll be getting the bill for a new table cloth”—the story wouldn’t be nearly as educational.
Anyway, thinking quick on his feet, Jefferson said he dumped his coffee into his saucer, “To cool it, my throat is not made of brass.”
“Even so,” said Washington. “We pour our legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.”
What Washington was trying to get across was that the Senate and the House were designed to serve different purposes. The House, with its short terms and smaller districts, was all about capturing whatever issue of the day had the hoi polloi on the boil. And whatever that was, knowing the plebs it was probably not fully thought through and likely to scald the commonweal right on the butt cheeks if rapidly translated into law.
So into the senatorial saucer it went, where legislators more insulated from the heat of immediate political concerns could let it cool and fish out the bits that represented a democratic choking hazard. Senators had longer terms (six years instead of four) and, remember, at the time were not popularly elected, but chosen by state legislatures. So they didn’t have to worry much about voters. Plus, at least as originally conceived, the Senate was to be largely populated by aristos and toffs, the sort of people who were not likely to let grubby concerns like partisan politics stand before what was good for the social order.
And, even with the advent of popular elections in the Senate, that’s more or less how it’s worked. The House has tended to be more partisan and more in a hurry to get things done. The Senate moves at a statelier pace and is less likely to hew the partisan line. These days, though, not so much. The institutional differences that marked the very different political cultures—and purposes—of the House and the Senate are eroding fast. The Senate has basically turned itself into an over-caffeinated partisan dogs’ breakfast. It’s less interested in cooling the ideological coffee than in gulping down the Kool Aid. It is trying its hardest to become the House.
While there’s plenty of blame to go around for this sorry state of affairs, the biggest portion properly belongs on the plate of GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Which is odd, because he seems, or at least seemed, to have a pretty good grasp of the Senate’s unique and important role in American governance. If allowed to work as designed, McConnell once said, the Senate’s central job is fundamentally different from that of the House. The House pushes the majority party agenda and to hell with the loser weenies who disagree with it. The Senate’s job, on the other hand, is to help insure laws are acceptable (if not enthusiastically supported) across the entire political spectrum. As McConnell put it, if the Senate’s majority party acted in a similar fashion to that of the House—basically employing the institution as “an assembly line for one party’s partisan legislative agenda”—it would undermine the notion of consensual rule and promote “instability and strife.”
Huh. So clearly he knew what he was doing when he turned the Senate in a partisan assembly line of gridlock and dysfunction. During the Obama administration he spent eight years conducting a gobsmackingly cynical campaign to prevent the president to get anything done. His avowed primary goal during the first of those four years was to make Obama a one-term president. Getting anything done—even if it served Republican, or heavens to Betsy, even national interests—took second place. McConnell’s then counterpart in the House, GOP Speaker John Beohner, said his caucus would do everything to stop the policy agenda Obama was elected on, the plan being “to kill it, stop it, slow it down, whatever we can.” In other words, the battle cry was (and still is), “death to bipartisanship.”
You expect that sort of stuff from the House, though. What was unusual was that McConnell did the same thing in the Senate. And he did it well. And more or less continued doing it when the GOP finally won everything in 2016. Recently McConnell had the Senate writing laws to radically restructure a sixth of the nation’s economy (i.e. the recently deceased healthcare plan) in secret. No public hearings. No Congressional Budget Office scoring. Not a lot of input even from his Republican colleagues. In short, there was no senatorial saucer cooling on the biggest issue Congress handled in the first six months of the Trump presidency. Instead, the McConnell-led Senate basically dumped gasoline on a forest fire. And got badly burned when the central legislative goal of the Republican Party for the past decade went up in smoke.
There are some small signs that McConnell is rethinking his arsonist-as-chamber-leader approach, but it’s not clear there’s any temperate middle ground left to go back to. The Democrats clearly have taken a lesson from McConnell’s time as a minority leader. The basic strategy they seem to be following is this: Screw up as much as possible, blame the other side, and take responsibility for nothing. And, hey, why not. It worked for McConnell and the GOP.
The problem is that strategy is fundamentally predicated on destroying the Senate’s traditional institutional role as the partisan surge protector of the Republic. This is why filibusters are going out the window, budget reconciliation rules are being turned into partisan clubs, routine and uncontroversial nominations are getting mugged by parliamentary process, and public hearings are avoided unless they provide some political gain for the party with the power to call them. This sort of stuff, adjusted for differing rules and roles, has always happened in the House. And that’s pretty much what the Senate is becoming—a chamber focused on short term partisan point scoring. Which is disturbing, because there is no third chamber to rein in the worst of the political excess. We’re at a point where the Senate is in the House.
That is really bad news, and even way back when, George Washington knew it. At the conclusion of that long-ago breakfast, Jefferson once more pressed Washington for a justification for the Senate.
“Well, why have you put my breakfast sausage in your pocket,” said Washington.
“Um, I’m reserving something to nibble on later,” said Jefferson, obviously wondering if he could also get the leftover scones into his waistcoat.
“Just so. And that’s why we have a Senate. To save our bacon.”
Okay, I can’t verify those exact words, but I’m pretty sure I got the gist. Maybe somebody familiar with Washington should invite Mitch McConnell over for breakfast.
- Or maybe not. This story, though widely repeated, is likely apocryphal.