Most US Senators up for reelection this fall are frantically trying to persuade voters that their opponent is either a fascist or a communist. Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, meanwhile, is going up against a sexual harasser and a last-minute Democrat write-in candidate, six years after winning his first Senate election with more than double the votes of his closest competitor.
So what is a rising GOP superstar and potential 2024 Presidential candidate to do to get national media attention? After spending most of the year giving half-hearted graduation speeches and writing his monthly strongly-worded statement against one of Trump’s actions, Sasse decided to take his ideas to the Wall Street Journal.
Earlier this month, Sasse wrote an editorial titled “Make the Senate Great Again.” In it he makes several suggestions for improving the Senate as a governing body, including abolishing standing committees, having more senators attend floor debates, making the senators live together, canceling re-election, curtailing the authority of bureaucracies, making a “real” budget and repealing the 17th amendment. This amendment, ratified in 1913, is the reason US senators are elected by voters in the general public instead of being appointed by state legislatures.
It probably comes as no surprise that this menu of reform did not come without sharp criticism from many in the media.
One Washington Post columnist even responded to his editorial with a call to “Make Ben Sasse think again.”
As someone who has not been in Washington to see the Senate in action firsthand, I am not in the best position to speculate on the effects of these proposals. While I am not as well-versed in the means of the Senate, I can say that the ends have been atrocious as of late.
There are a few things I can confidently say Sasse gets right in this op-ed. The Senate is indeed broken. Congress has an abysmal approval rating of 21% as of August 2020. And yet, no individual senator had a disapproval rating of more than 52% in a 2019 poll. Only 2% of Senators had disapproval ratings higher than 42%.
In other words, people hate the Senate but love their senator. This is why incumbents usually get re-elected, despite the atrocious approval rating of the body as a whole.
It is impossible to know whether a repeal of the 17th amendment could solve this problem, but it seems it could not get much worse.
The Supreme Court, made up of unelected appointees who serve lifetime terms, has a 58% approval rating, far higher than the leaders of the other branches of government.
Many of these appointees were nominated by very unpopular presidents, but the general public does not seem to mind.
One of my favorite Sasse ideas is his call to cut the cameras in Senate debate. As an aspiring journalist and a curious human being, I am typically against anything that would make the government less transparent. However, one of the major problems with the current floor debate in the US Senate is that remarks are more directed at the media and home state constituents instead of fellow senators.
Since there is not much debate going on among senators, it is no wonder that the Senate floor has been essentially operating at 25% capacity since before it was cool.
To be clear, there should be a public record of Senate proceedings, but citizens would not miss much if the US Senate debates were not caught on camera to create soundbites. C-SPAN may have to rework its programming, but I doubt many Americans would be too disappointed. And this is coming from someone who spent hours listening to the Nebraska Legislature livestream this summer, a place that, in contrast to the United States Senate chamber, seemed to be full most of the time.
Sasse does have some rather silly ideas though, such as requiring senators to live and eat together in dormitories while in session. Perhaps Sasse has fond memories of his college days, though I believe that Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer living in a dorm together is an idea best left to Saturday Night Live. It would be great if our nation’s lawmakers could get along outside of the Capitol building, but I doubt that living together would be the best way to make this happen.
Most of Sasse’s serious ideas will be rejected or flat out ignored, but I do admire his attempts, even if it is just a ploy for attention. I would much rather see a senator lay out some controversial structural change and embrace debate than make an inflammatory remark on Twitter and enjoy a brief moment in the news cycle.
In a 2017 interview, Sasse said, “I think that both [Republicans and Democrats] are almost completely intellectually exhausted. I don’t think either party can articulate a vision for America that’s five or ten years future-looking right now.”
And although I do not agree 100% with Sasse’s vision for America, I am at least impressed that he is thinking beyond the partisan culture wars of our time, which says a lot about how low the bar is for politicians at a federal level.
Much like my take on the defund the police movement, I believe that we should have a national debate about the need for a 17th amendment, and more broadly, the way that Congress functions, without dismissing all of Sasse’s ideas as silly.
Something needs to change within the highest legislative body in the United States, and electing the opposite party is not going to be enough.
Brian Beach is a sophomore journalism major. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.