One of the most important “checks and balances” the Founding Fathers embedded in the Constitution that was ratified this week (June 21) in 1788 was the creation of a bicameral legislature that included a Senate. The pre-constitutional government, the Articles of Confederation, was a unicameral legislature of popularly elected representatives with short terms in office. The intent was that popularly elected representatives, serving short terms, would be responsive to the people’s will or be voted out of office.
However, as the Founders soon realized, in popular elections a majority of voters choose their legislators, meaning those legislators are beholden to the interests of those majorities, even if their interests aren’t shared by minorities or individuals. If, for example, borrowers of money, who will always outnumber lenders, wanted their state legislature to pass laws that devalued the worth of the money they owed lenders, then by the power of their majority numbers they could make that happen, which was good for them but bad for the minority lenders, and was patently unfair. The Founders called it “tyranny of the majority.”
Thus, members of the Constitution’s House of Representatives, being popularly elected to just two-year terms, would usually pass laws benefitting their majority constituents. But the Senate had six-year terms, giving its members more immunity from the popular will, and, back in 1788, it had the added immunity of not being popularly elected, but appointed to the Senate by state legislatures.
That meant senators could view any bills passed by House members – which would invariably reflect the interests of the majority of their constituents – with more objectivity and more concern about how that bill affected all of the people in their states. Since both branches of Congress must approve a bill before it becomes law, any bill Congress passed had to be a compromise, reflecting the different priorities of the House and Senate, meaning the Senate had the power to “check and balance” the House and prevent “tyrannical majorities” from having their way.
Today, because of the 17th Amendment, senators are also popularly elected, but they still have six-year terms, are usually more politically experienced and sober in their judgment than are House members, and are elected by the entire state, not just congressional districts, so the House-Senate balance is still somewhat in place.
On that note, the story goes that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington met one day over tea to discuss the Constitution, and Jefferson, who had not attended the Constitutional Convention, asked Washington why the need for a Senate.
“Why do you pour your tea into that saucer?” Washington asked. “To cool it,” Jefferson replied. “Just so,” said Washington. “We pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.”