The U.S. Senate, according to senators during speech after speech on its floor, is the greatest deliberative body on earth. The saying, which started with former president John Buchanan, is now something that a senate session is not complete without, or at least a senate session where senators actually attend. This statement, though, is completely false. In fact, it is the exact opposite.
During senate sessions, it is rare to see more than five senators on the floor. When senators move for votes on legislation, it is rare to not hear a motion to waive the mandatory quorum call before the vote, because if it was not waived then there would almost never be a vote as it’s extremely rare for a quorum to be present. Often senators are not present during debates, creating a lack of transparency as they work behind closed doors to establish agreements, instead of doing so in the eyes of the American public.
The only time senators do come to the floor, though, is when they want to give a speech to the public, as C-Span provides free coverage. This has turned the senate chamber into no more than a platform to elevate the message of senators when they cannot book, or do not want to book, a segment on cable television.
Senator Jon Tester, in a recent speech on the senate floor, made this point abundantly clear. “I wonder what the forefathers would think today if they saw this body–a shell of its former self. And it is not due to the rules; it is due to the fact that we have leadership that will not live up to the obligation of this body as set up to begin with,” he said. This clearly demonstrates the failure of the senate to operate as a body is apparent even to members of the senate.
The idea of the most deliberative body on Earth being a body that hardly ever has a quorum in the chamber, a body whose chair rarely attends to do their constitutional duty, a body in which nominations and legislation can be passed by a single person at any time of day or night, without any other senators attending, and a body who has a single person who decides every single vote that is held is a joke. For these reasons, the senate should return to the pre-whip way of doing its business, where votes were held by motions made by any senator, not just the majority leader, where the vice president attended sessions, where quorums were the rule and not the exception, much like the House of Commons in the British parliament today.
The greatest deliberative body is not the senate of the United States, for the senate in its current state is hardly a deliberative body. This is not the way the greatest deliberative body on Earth should behave, nor is it the way great deliberative bodies do, or have, behaved in the past.