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We the People: The Senate was designed for compromise and stability, but is it still playing that role?

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), left, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) walk to the Senate Chamber at the U.S. Capitol.  (Chip Somodevilla, Tribune News Service)
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), left, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) walk to the Senate Chamber at the U.S. Capitol. (Chip Somodevilla, Tribune News Service)
By Carly Dykes The Spokesman-Review

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

This week’s question: How long is a term for a U.S. senator?

Control of the Congress is up for grabs in November. Some political scientists are worried for the state of American democracy, which is showing intense polarization even in an institution – the U.S. Senate – designed to be more deliberative and open to compromise.

“I am worried that we have a significant faction within a political party today that continues to cast doubt on election outcomes,” said Cornell Clayton, a professor of government at Washington State University and the director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute of Public Policy and Public Service. “Several candidates have already announced that they will not accept election results if they don’t win.”

In the current political climate, there is intense partisan polarization, and political views more often veer from the center and toward ideological extremes.

“The Senate used to be much more bipartisan, but in recent years partisan polarization has allowed for the Senate to be just as divisive as the House of Representatives,” Clayton said. “Partisan polarization will only lessen if one party gains a significant majority, consistently.”

Every two years, one-third of the Senate is open for re-election.

In November, 34 of the 100 Senate seats are being contested.

To maintain stability and continuity, Founding Fathers set the terms for senators at six years in the Constitution approved in 1787.

“Senate terms are much longer than terms in the House of Representatives to help provide some stability to Congress,” said James Headley, a professor of political science and interim chair at Eastern Washington University’s political science and public policy program. “The longer Senate terms help insulate Congress from being swept up or overly influenced by the passions of the day.”

“Senate terms were subject of a lot of debate at the constitutional convention,” Clayton said. “At the time, most state legislators had shorter terms, but there was significant sentiment that terms for senators should be long in order to create a cooling period to tamp down the democratic sentiments of the house.”

Clayton believes that the United States will continue to have closely divided elections until a singular party is able to build a strong, majority coalition that propels into office over an extended period. This likely won’t happen until a generational turnover occurs and a realignment of the electorate.

Acrimony within the Senate stems from intense party competition spurred by right- and left-wing politicians, Clayton said.

Extremist outbursts, such as the Jan. 6 insurrection, have only furthered this division.

“The insurrection marks a sad and dangerous turning point in our democracy,” Headley said. “The blatant disregard for truth, the law and the Constitution undermines our democracy and is equally dangerous and in line with authoritarianism – not democracy.”

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