WASHINGTON — Sen. Ben Sasse proposed a slew of major changes to the Senate this week — including a repeal of the Constitutional amendment that provided for direct election of its members.
The Nebraska Republican said in an interview that he recognizes it could take many years to implement the major overhaul he has in mind.
“So we’re going to need to tell the truth about the fact that the Senate is a dysfunctional institution to be able to get enough ideas on the menu that you can start to figure out where you’d forge consensus,” Sasse told The World-Herald.
He unveiled his ideas in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, writing that the founding fathers would be shocked at the current state of affairs.
“The Congress they envisioned is all but dead,” Sasse wrote. “The Senate in particular is supposed to be the place where Americans hammer out our biggest challenges with debate. That hasn’t happened for decades — and the rot is bipartisan.”
Sasse has made the biggest headlines over the years for his willingness to publicly criticize President Donald Trump, but he also has repeatedly directed rhetorical fire at the very institution in which he serves.
His debut address on the Senate floor, for example, was a scathing, bipartisan takedown of the chamber in which he declared that “the people despise us all.”
Since then he has continued to decry how the Senate functions, characterizing committee hearings as pointless exercises dominated by members mugging for the cameras.
Among his proposals is removing those cameras from committee hearings, while still providing transcripts and real-time audio of the proceedings.
He would dissolve standing committees and replace them with temporary panels devoted to specific issues. And he would give those committees some control of the Senate floor to bring more members into debate — in contrast to the current routine of senators delivering their speeches to an often empty chamber.
Sasse also suggested doubling the current six-year Senate term to 12 years and limiting senators to one term so they aren’t focused on reelection.
“Senators who don’t have to worry about short-term popularity can work instead on long-term challenges,” Sasse wrote.
He also would pull back legislative authorities granted to the executive branch over the years and overhaul the budgeting process.
But the biggest change would be repealing the 17th Amendment, which provides for the direct election of senators rather than having them selected by state legislatures.
“The old saying used to be that all politics is local, but today — thanks to the internet, 24/7 cable news and a cottage industry dedicated to political addiction — politics is polarized and national,” Sasse wrote. “That would change if state legislatures had direct control over who serves in the Senate.”
Asked about Sasse’s ideas on Wednesday, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa said he supports term limits and agreed that the congressional budgeting process has broken down.
But the seven-term senator rejected rolling back the 17th Amendment, saying it’s better for senators to represent the people directly rather than a majority of their state legislators.
He noted that the current system has been in place for more than a century.
“I think it’s worked perfectly,” Grassley said.
Sasse’s piece prompted plenty of discussion on social media, with some suggesting that his changes would undermine transparency and accountability, particularly the repeal of the 17th Amendment.
“Truly amazed that someone could look at Washington today and conclude that the problem with the Senate is that it’s *too responsive* to voters,” former Democratic presidential contender Pete Buttigieg wrote on Twitter.
In the interview, Sasse pushed back on the idea that going back to the old process of selecting senators would make them less responsive. States are handicapped now by how little influence they have over federal actions, he said.
“Coercive federalism means that we still pretend to the American people that the Unicameral matters, but really huge, huge shares of what the Nebraska state Legislature wrestles with every year is a Medicaid program that they don’t really have much power to reform,” Sasse said.
Another piece of Sasse’s proposal is that senators live, eat and meet in dormitories when the Senate is in session in order to foster more cooperation and less demonization.
He cited two colleagues, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who have worked across the aisle on a major declassification bill.
Sasse said the two work well together in part because of the relationship they built through the Senate gym.
“They like each other because they work out next to each other and they both make fun of themselves being old dudes whose joints are breaking down,” Sasse said.
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