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The Case for Scrapping the Senate

August 21st, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

My political blog entries generally fall into three broad categories. I mostly argue against other opinions and points of view with varying degrees of snark, but I also like to highlight what I see as the most important underlying problems facing America and the rest of the world today. Finally, I occasionally offer possible solutions to some of these problems.

Today I’m going to make a serious argument for dismantling the U.S. Senate. Yes, I know—it can’t be done. But I’ll explain at the end why even just talking about it could be useful.

The primary flaw of the Senate is the reason it was created in the first place. The framers of the Constitution who represented states with lower populations were reluctant to join a union in which larger states had most of the power. If representation were determined by population alone, high-population states could have too much power over low-population states. For instance, even if every representative of every southern state were in favor of slavery, a simple majority of representatives of northern states could vote to abolish it and the southern states would be powerless to stop them (unless they were to secede).

So they created a bicameral legislature in which one body would distribute representation based on population and the other would evenly distribute representation among each state. Regardless of whether your state’s population was a thousand or a million, you’d get exactly two senators.

Today, Wyoming has just as much representation in the Senate as California, even though Wyoming has only about 500,000 residents while California has about 36.5 million. This means Wyoming residents have roughly 73 times as much political power as California residents when it comes to senatorial representation—completely undermining the principle of one man, one vote.

So even if the majority of Americans are liberal or center-left, as long as the smaller states are mostly conservative the Senate will ensure that Washington governs from the center-right. The government does not accurately reflect the will of the people.

Furthermore, when you have one political party hell-bent on obstructing everything the other party wants to do, the Senate makes it incredibly easy to do so. The whole thing was designed to prevent one politician or party from making too many drastic changes to the law too quickly, and while some mechanism to slow things down is certainly useful, occasionally desperate times call for desperate measures (I’d argue that we’re currently in one of those times) and senatorial gridlock can kill the most essential pieces of legislation.

The biggest culprit is a guy I like to call Philip Uster. Thanks to the filibuster, any party that wishes to obstruct a bill can force the other to obtain 60 votes rather than a simple majority. Even in a body of disproportionate representation, a majority isn’t always enough. 77% of Americans can support something along with 57 out of 100 senators, but it can still fail to pass.

If you don’t think the problem is that serious, consider the fact that 290—yes, two hundred and ninety—bills that were passed in the House of Representatives got stalled in the Senate (and that statistic is from an article written back in February). If we didn’t have a Senate, we would have passed Health Care reform with a public option, along with Climate Change legislation, stronger Financial Reform, and on and on and on.

Now, to get rid of the Senate you’d have to change the Constitution, and that would require a two-thirds majority in the Senate. Obviously, you’ll never get 67 senators to vote themselves out of a job.

However, if the health care debate taught us anything it’s that we should start with a huge demand and then compromise our way down from there. Had we begun by demanding single-payer we might have traded that away for a public option, but instead we began by demanding a public option and traded that away for…Joe Lieberman’s vote.

If there were some kind of organized “Dismantle the Senate” movement out there consistently beating the drum and highlighting what a huge detriment this body is to the country, we might eventually be able to negotiate some real reforms such as the elimination of the filibuster (or at least lowering the bar), term-limits (because 12 years should be enough time for any one person to serve in Congress), and stricter regulations on lobbying your former colleagues after leaving the Senate (i.e. closing the revolving door).

Of course if none of this happens and the American government ends up collapsing under the weight of its own inflexibility, I’d recommend that when we draw up the next Constitution we leave the Senate out altogether.

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