A proposal for fixing the US Senate

The recently announced death of the climate bill in the US Senate has been cause for much anguish in the last few days among those of us who understand the implications of inaction for our future. Nevertheless, it is hardly the first instance in recent times where the structure of the US Senate has proved an obstacle to necessary legislative action. The drama associated with the recent much-delayed passage of a standard unemployment benefits extension is only the latest example in a very long list.

Having an upper house that runs at a somewhat slower pace to act as a deliberative body on proposals for changes in laws seems to have proved a good idea over time among many different nations, and the US is fortunate to have an upper house that acts as much more than a rubber stamp. Nevertheless, the structure of the US Senate as it works now is fundamentally flawed to the extent that what is necessary regarding actual reality often simply cannot be addressed at all these days, "for political reasons".

One common complaint at the moment regards the filibuster, which in the present Senate has resulted in "parliamentary maneuvers" from the Republican side to delay essentially every action unless a 60-vote super-majority can be found. There is some promise that that will change, at least at the time the next congress begins in 2011.

But the real problem is that the US Senate is a fundamentally un-democratic body.

In the House of Representatives, power currently ranges from that of a Wyoming citizen with about 1/523,000th of a member to a Utah citizen with 1/882,000th, or a ratio of 1.69 in favor of the Wyoming citizen - not quite equal, but not too far off. But in the US Senate, representation per citizen ranges from 2/523,000 for Wyoming citizens to 2/37,000,000 for California citizens, a ratio of almost 71. As far as influence in the US Senate is concerned, citizens of Wyoming have 71 times the power of citizens of California.

And that is just not right.

James Madison drafted the original Virginia Plan for the US constitution which formed the foundation of the final document. But the one dramatic change, the subject of months of contentious debate, was the make-up of the upper house. In the original Virginia Plan the upper house was representative, democratic, just like the lower house, with large states having a larger share than the smaller states, proportional to their population. Madison had very good reasons for urging this; among them a strong faith in democracy itself, that true fairness was only possible with equal representation for every person, and a conviction that corruption could only be rooted out through the operation of large representative bodies such as he proposed.

In the end the small states at the convention prevailed, with a proposal from Connecticut producing essentially the senate we have today. But note that, at the time the ratio of largest to smallest state power was only about a factor of 10 - Delaware with 11,783 free citizens to Virginia's 110,936, or in terms of total population Delaware's 59,000 to Virginia's 748,000. The disproportion between "small" and "large" states has, over the past 220 years, grown by a factor of 7.

So the compromise that built the senate we have today is fundamentally less fair than it was when it was originally proposed and accepted. I'd like to propose a small modification that would at least partially return some of the fairness of the original to our system of government, bringing the senate back closer to the democratic ideals of Madison.

The proposal

States with less than 1/3 of the average state population are to be represented by one senator. States with between 1/3 and the average have two senators, as now. States with population higher than the average have 3 senators.

According to the 2009 population estimates for US States, this proposal would give 17 states (California to Tennessee) 3 senators, and 15 states (New Mexico to Wyoming) just 1, putting the total senate at 102 members, instead of 100.

This proposal would reduce the power ratio between citizens of California and Wyoming in the US Senate to about 24, instead of 71, a substantial improvement, though nowhere near the equity of the House. The 215 million citizens (70% of US population) in the top 17 states, who now have just 34 senators (34% representation) would be boosted to 51 (50% representation) in the Senate. The 17 million citizens (6% of US population) in the bottom 15 states, who now have 30 senators (30% representation) would drop to only 15 (15%), closer to equitable but still considerably above their numbers. The 75 million in the 18 middle states (24% of US population) would retain 36 senators, though the additional 2 senators in the body would drop that to only 35% representation instead of 36%, still somewhat above their numbers.

The six-year senate terms and process of elections every two years could be retained under this system; states with 3 senators would have a senate election every two years, while states with 1 would have a senate election every 6 years, and the others would proceed as now.

I also propose a phased introduction of this change upon its adoption (presumably through constitutional amendment!) Assuming the distribution remains as outlined here, the two most populous states should get their two additional senate seats immediately. The remaining 15 would be modified in order of the least and most populous states over the space of 3 election cycles, with 5 senate seats switched from low-population to high-population states with each cycle.

The only question remaining to me is whether the US constitution's system of amendment is capable of handling such an eminently reasonable modification!

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The answer to that last

The answer to that last question is a definite no given that it amounts to asking those small-population states to volunteer to give up a senator each. A more likely route to such a change would be via a broader package of reforms proposed through a constitutional convention.

IMHO small state/big state sectionalism is less of an issue today than at the time the Constitution was written, so of the two reforms eliminating the filibuster rule would have the larger impact. Of course they may simply change the cloture requirement to 55 rather than eliminate the rule entirely, and all else equal they would probably want to produce a compromise along those lines, but it will be interesting to see what really happens since current projections make it likley that a 55-vote requirement in the next session would give Republicans the same blocking power they have now.

Right, such a change couldn't

Right, such a change couldn't get through on its own, but I wonder if there are conditions where it might work - carrots or sticks for the small states to accept this change along with others. It would be tricky negotiating - but maybe not as tricky as getting all the needed stuff through the senate we have now!

I didn't really go into the full impacts of the current un-democratic nature of the Senate. For one thing it makes dealing with proper representation for DC and the island territories tricky (of course they don't even have voting representation in the House either right now). Nobody wants to give DC two senators in addition to a representative, which statehood would require! It is also an invitation to corruption through the small states - a dollar of influence in Wyoming buys at least as many "votes" as 71 dollars does in California. Ever wondered why so many corporations are headquartered in Delaware?

The threat might be the desire for a fully representative Senate - one senator would need to represent several states in that case (or the senate would be much larger). Or the other threat, that might actually have a better chance of getting through but which I'm not sure is wise, would be to propose removing some of the powers of the senate itself - for example the power to originate legislation, perhaps move treaty approval and voting on presidential appointments to the House...

But really this was mainly just an idle idea I wanted to get down in writing - maybe it could be realistic in the long run, or maybe it's just totally irrelevant daydreaming. I thought it might be worth preserving though...

Arthur and Steve: it's even

Arthur and Steve: it's even worse than you think. The U.S. Constitution puts equal representation of the states in the Senate in a special category: it is the only provision in the entire document that CANNOT be amended by the standard procedure:

Article V
The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.

In other words, 2/3 of each House and 3/4 of the states is not enough for this purpose - you need to get unanimous consent from all of the states.

It might be easier to simply abolish the Senate, or to drastically reduce its authority (e.g. turn it into the equivalent of the UK House of Lords.) For example, the Senate could retain those powers that are specifically assigned to it by the Constitution (ratifying treaties, confirming Judicial and Cabinet-level appointments, etc.) but relinquish most or all of its legislative authority.

Yes, somebody pointed this

Yes, somebody pointed this out to me elsewhere. The constitution definitely makes the senate difficult to change - but not impossible!

But the real problem is that

But the real problem is that the US Senate is a fundamentally un-democratic body.

This line struck me as peculiar. The United States has never been a democracy, nor is there any inherent reason it should be. The country's government was set up the way it was due to compromises between several views, none of which were "right." If there were enough support to change the Senate's structure due to some philosophical view, perhaps it would be a good idea. However, changing the Constitution in order to get what one wants is not. There are certainly a number of ways to address the current problems in the Senate without passing any sort of amendment, so they should be looked to instead. That said, there is nothing wrong with considering changes to the government, and it certainly doesn't hurt to discuss them. It is even possible there are "good" changes which can be found, and implemented. So with that in mind, I'll list my immediate thoughts on reading it:

1) Of the fifteen states which would lose a seat under this proposal, three have senators who come from different parties (Nebraska, Alaska and South Dakota). With only one seat, only one party could get represented. Following from this, those states with only one seat must wait six years to be able to reflect any change in view, and only one view could be represented at a time.

2) The amount of votes a state gets in the Electoral College is based on its congressional representation. There are currently seven states (Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming) with only three electoral votes. They would each drop to two. The overall change would be to give highly populated areas an increase in power of about 5%

3) It would now take only 18 states to pass a law through both houses.

While I have a few more thoughts, they each seem to lead toward the same conclusion. This change would be polarizing, and it would primarily serve to strengthen urban areas at the cost of rural ones. It wouldn't do anything to affect things like filibusters, but it would serve to concentrate power more into smaller areas.

So I was thinking about this

So I was thinking about this issue earlier, and I had an idea. It is much simpler than any of the proposed changes to the Senate I have seen, and I think it would address the current problems much better. Regardless of what people think of the Senate being undemocratic, it seems obvious the Senate has issues. By dragging its feet, it can do what any bureaucracy does: nothing. While Senate rules could be changed to address this, it is hard to trust people to police their own.

So I have an idea which would address this. I don't think it would ever be implemented, but it would be easier to implement than any other idea I have seen. Currently Representatives serve two year terms while Senators serve six year terms. I propose we switch this.

The Senate is the only house which can stall indefinitely. With six year terms, Senators have little pressure to accomplish anything. They can do basically nothing for years, and only start acting the year or so before election time. Moreover, incumbents will always have an advantage when running for reelection. However, the longer one's term, the larger that advantage becomes. These facts help insulate Senators from public pressure, making it harder for the "people" to effect any changes.

If Senators had to worry about reelection more often, they would be forced to cater to the people more. They would still be able to stall things, but if doing so upset the people, they wouldn't get reelected. In addition, two year election cycles would mean the party makeup of the Senate would be more in line with the nation's current view, which is something the Senate lacks greatly.

As an added bonus, it would make the House of Representatives more sensible. There are over four hundred people in the House, and they face reelection every two years. There is no way people can keep up with that many politicians, especially not when they are up for election so often. Moreover, with there being so many people in the House, you would still get plenty of change every two years.

I don't have any hope of this change coming about, but I think it would be a good one. What do you think?

Any given voter has 2

Any given voter has 2 senators to worry about and only 1 representative, so switching the election frequency would make the "keeping up" problem worse, not better (from that perspective). We have far worse problems with the large number of local elected officials who seem to usually fly under the radar until they do something bad enough to get in newspaper headlines...

I think the overall structure of our legislative branch with a "lower", more-up-to-the-minute house and an "upper", slower-acting, more tradition-conscious body, is in principle sound. You need both passion and wisdom to make good laws. The problem is the structure as it currently stands privileges a select minority of the country (citizens - and corporations - of small states) and unbalances the upper house in fundamental ways that I believe are the ultimate cause of the current gridlock.

A voter may only have to

A voter may only have to worry about one representative, but as a nation we have to worry about more. When election time comes, there is no way for over four hundred representatives to receive an appropriate amount of attention. An obvious example of this is in the media. The news could never hope to cover all the elections well, and there certainly isn't enough air time for the candidates to get themselves out there.

A slower-acting, more tradition-conscious body, made (at least some) sense when it was first created. The government wasn't expected to do all that much back then. Since then, the government has grown bigger, become more convoluted, and taken on more responsibilities. Heck, just look at the size of the Senate and how it has changed in two centuries.

Incidentally, I looked up a list of the senators in less populated states. Something like half the states you would have lose senators have two Democratic senators. Twenty percent have one senator from each party. Given this, it seems hard to believe the republican party is able to stall things so much due to the undemocratic nature of the Senate.

It seems the system itself is a much more likely cause. After all, when the entire system is a bureaucracy, is really a surprise if things get gummed up?