Senate appears set to abdicate key role the founders intended

  • Andrew Trees

    Andrew Trees

By Andrew Trees
Guest columnist
Posted1/21/2020 1:00 AM

The Senate is in danger of a failure of epic proportions in the upcoming impeachment trial.

Regardless of whether or not senators vote to impeach President Trump, how they conduct the trial is a crucial test of the Senate itself. The Founding Fathers had a clear idea of how senators should act in moments like this -- as neutral arbiters who would stand above popular passions and partisan considerations. The question is, will senators actually live up to the role envisioned for them?


The early evidence is disheartening. Sen. Lindsey Graham said that he was "not trying to pretend to be a fair juror." Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised a quick acquittal and also boasted that he is "not an impartial juror." He said that "there will be no difference between the president's position and our position as to how to handle this."

This is not what the founders envisioned. They thought long and hard about the design of our national government, and they had a very particular role in mind for the Senate.

There is a famous (although possibly apocryphal) story that illustrates this.

Breakfasting with George Washington after returning from France, Thomas Jefferson, is said to have asked Washington why he agreed to the creation of the Senate.

"Why," asked Washington, "did you just now pour that coffee into your saucer before drinking it?"

"To cool it," said Jefferson.

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"Even so," said Washington, "we pour our legislation into the Senatorial saucer to cool it."

That is the role of the Senate in a nutshell -- to cool the temporary passions of the moment and offer judgment and wisdom.

That is the main reason senators were given six-year terms, three times as long as the House and longer than a presidential term. The length of the term was supposed to insulate them from outside pressure -- that of the president or the House or even the people themselves.

As Madison noted in Federalist #62, the Senate "ought ... to possess great firmness, and consequently ought to hold its authority by a tenure of considerable duration." He argued that a Senate would protect against the tendency "to yield to the impulse of sudden and violent passions, and to be seduced by factious leaders into intemperate and pernicious resolutions."

While it is perfectly reasonable to vote against impeachment after hearing the evidence presented in the trial, McConnell and Graham are betraying their role as senators to declare in advance that they will not act as impartial jurors.


Worse, they are undermining our government.

The system of checks and balances functions best when each branch zealously guards its own power, but by declaring in advance that they have no interest in an impartial trial, McConnell and Graham are eroding the long-term health of the Senate and of the government itself.

Madison ended his Federalist essay on the Senate with a warning that senators would do well to heed when the impeachment trial takes place.

He wrote, "But the most deplorable effect of all is that diminution of attachment and reverence which steals into the hearts of the people, toward a political system which betrays so many marks of infirmity, and disappoints so many of their flattering hopes. No government, any more than an individual, will long be respected without being truly respectable; nor be truly respectable, without possessing a certain portion of order and stability."

The upcoming impeachment trial will not just determine the fate of President Trump -- it will also give us some indication of the fate of the republic itself.

Andrew Trees, of Lake Forest, is a professor at Roosevelt University and the author of "The Founding Fathers and the Politics of Character."

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