One of Alexis de Tocqueville's flashes of genius, in his justly famous "Democracy in America," was to see that our Constitution's success does not flow just from the formal institutions it established. Instead, through those institutions, it has also created an American character, which, in turn, supports the Constitution's power.
But this general principle has subdivisions. The structure of the House of Representatives has formed a House character and a particular style of House relationship, while the Senate's arrangements have spawned a strikingly different way of doing business.
In the House these days, there is Organization: The Speaker huddles with party leadership, leadership confers with committee chairmen and the troops march. It does not do much good to get in the way.
The Senate, while capable of just as much nastiness as the House, does it otherwise. There is Mutual Deference. Senators make a great show of respecting each other's exigencies and consciences.
The contrast has recently been on display. House Republicans are barreling along, trying to pass as much of their "contract with America" as possible before the Washington Establishment can enervate, corrupt or otherwise catch up with them.
Senate Republicans, meanwhile, have not only missed their chance to pass the contract's balanced-budget amendment but failed to discipline the one Republican senator, Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon, who could have made the difference by changing his "no" vote to a "yes."
This confused state of affairs is fun to watch. But we should not make the mistake of taking it as a sign that the anti-government opinions expressed by voters in November are an ebbing tide. It will keep rolling; the Constitution has seen to that, too.
House Republicans are dancing as fast as they can. The signs of a political crusade are unmistakable: 14-hour days, glazed eyes, bad tempers, sloppy work, neglected families, wastebaskets groaning with the trash generated by huge quantities of take-out food. "If you're Domino's Pizza or Hunan Dynasty, you love us," said one House Republican. "If you're wives or families, you've forgotten what we look like."
The results have been stunning: internal reforms, tougher cost-benefit analysis for regulations, expanded landowners' rights against government, bills to change welfare, food stamps and logging on federal land.
House Democrats, all things considered, have not voiced much outraged protest. Democrats, no doubt, remember that when they ran the place, they did not take prisoners, either. That's what the House is like.
Naturally the House passed a balanced-budget amendment with no sweat, 300 to 132.
Meanwhile, the Senate, dealing with the same amendment, displayed punctilious courtesy, snarling bitterness and hand-wringing institutional agony.
Individual senators' votes were assiduously courted. First, Republicans acceded to Georgia Democrat Sam Nunn's demand that the amendment be made enforceable upon Congress only by--of course--Congress itself. Then, Democratic senators like Kent Conrad of North Dakota, trying to trump "balanced budget" with "old folks," wanted a guarantee that budget balancers would not touch the Social Security surplus. Protracted negotiations ensued, but GOP concessions were not enough. The Democratic holdouts preferred to remain in possession of their reason for holding out.
Then, after all this elaborate deference to Democrats, the Republican Hatfield balked, refusing to vote with his party. The amendment was lost by one vote.
After that, the disorder multiplied. At a happy GOP press conference, Democratic Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado announced he was becoming a Republican. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) wore a bolo tie in solidarity. Democrats, in a pathetic attempt to prove that party still matters, said Campbell should give back the campaign funds he got from them, resign his Senate seat and run again as a Republican. Fat chance.
Meanwhile, GOP party discipline was just as attenuated. Freshman Rick Santorum, elected in the Shiite upheaval of '94, advocated punishing Hatfield for his deviance, maybe by stripping him of his committee chairmanship. But the party decided not to pursue these sanctions.
The decision to back off was partly ideological, partly generational and partly strategic--and you couldn't tell the players without a program. For example, veteran Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who has never displayed much sympathy for Hatfield's moderate politics, was among those opposing sanctions. Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas), he of incomparable balanced-budget fervor, also came out against a jihad. He said attacking Hatfield would just deflect attention from the Democrats, who were chiefly to blame for the loss.
To add another layer of orneriness to the Senate's tangled tale, the implied disapproval of Santorum by the likes of Helms and Gramm did not go unchallenged. "Santorum's as much a senator as the most senior member, and he has a right to do and say anything he wants," said Santorum's fellow freshman, Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), defending his colleague's highly independent attack on Hatfield's highly independent vote.
That's the modern U.S. Senate--which, if it stands for one principle at all, represents the national refusal to be herded.
Yet, the current popular mood limits even the Senate's freedom to strut and oppose. In the Senate's debate over the budget amendment, swing-vote senators did not thunder that the amendment was just a device to limit the federal government's ability to help the poor and dispossessed. Not many senators called on anything they chose to label the nation's more generous impulses. Instead, they used life rafts and escape hatches: preserving congressional supremacy over the budget process, meeting economic emergencies, protecting old people's Social Security benefits.
Those arguments were good enough--just as the Founders intended--to kill a constitutional amendment, which requires a three-fifths majority for passage. But they are not good enough to change the basic vocabulary of today's political discourse--which, as the budget-amendment debate showed us, no longer has much room for the idea of an expansive federal government.
When shifts of this order take place, as much cultural as they are narrowly political, the structure of the Senate will slow but not stop them. This is also what the Founders intended.
So the House will march forward, rolling over individual opposition, while the Senate stalls by means of interpersonal delicacy. But over the long run, bet on the House--it is the branch where the energy lies, and it's going to be sending out for a lot more pizza.*