James Madison, often lauded as "father of the Constitution," once prescribed two main missions for the United States Senate: "First, to protect the people against their rulers; secondly, to protect the people against the transient impressions into which they might be led."
How true his words ring today. Millions of Americans, especially the poor and the vulnerable, need protection against the efforts of House Republicans to slash and terminate social programs at the same time they are devising tax cuts for the wealthy. Millions of other Americans, most on the opposite side of the political spectrum, need protection from "transient impressions" that have led them to support Speaker Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America" as though it were a biblical injunction.
By its very design and nature, the House of Representatives is supposed to reflect the changing moods of the public. It is the chamber "closest to the people," and the people in this day and age are subject as never before to the mass propaganda influences of the electronic media. The Senate, in contrast, prides itself in being "the world's greatest deliberative body" -- a definition too often traduced and now about to be tested harshly once again.
There seems to be nothing that can stop the tightly disciplined Republican majority in the House. Just this past week it has hacked away at summer youth jobs, public housing, school lunches, clean-water projects, energy assistance for the poor, education grants and the like.
To be sure, the huge welfare state erected during 40 years of uninterrupted Democratic rule in the House should be sharply reduced. But the frenzy in the House needs to be abruptly checked and balanced by the Senate. Will it do so?
Under pressure from the radical right, three Democratic senators up for re-election next year -- Joseph Biden of Delaware, Max Baucus of Montana and Tom Harkin of Iowa -- have made the conversion from opposition to support for the proposed Balanced Budget Amendment, a popular cause that predictably will be undercut by legislative legerdemain and tricky financial accounting.
If the Senate falters by approving the budget amendment, will it go along every time House Republicans send over a Contract item? We hope not. James Madison, in the Federalist Papers, asked if the House would not be as interested as the Senate "in maintaining the government in its proper functions." And then, in answer to his own question, Madison said that "in all cases the smaller the number, and the more permanent and conspicuous the station, of men in power [meaning the Senate] the stronger must be [their] interest. . . in whatever concerns the government. . . [including] every prospect of public danger."
As the Senate awaits the Gingrich agenda, the nation has every right to ask it to offset rash House action. As Daniel Webster put it, the country looks to the Senate for "wise, moderate, patriotic and healing counsels."