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.
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!