How about a truly representative Senate?

I've had a number of responses to my last post on changing the way the US Senate is built, in particular pointing out that yes, it would be very difficult to make such a change given the constraint in Article V of the constitution:

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, the 3/4 of states agreeing to the change would need to include at least every state that would be "deprived", i.e. have reduced representation. Since it's rather rare for any entity to give up power willingly, even for a good cause like equal representation, there would most likely need to be additional simultaneous changes adopted. Obviously this issue of upper house representation was a stumbling block in the original constitutional convention in Philadelphia all those years ago - but it should be noted that the states did give up power to the federal government in forming the union in the first place, so the process is not unprecedented.

Talk of senate reform is certainly in the air. Just today in the Washington Post, E.J. Dionne echoes some of my points from the other day:

Does any other democracy have a powerful legislative branch as undemocratic as the U.S. Senate?

When our republic was created, the population ratio between the largest and smallest state was 13 to 1. Now, it's 68 to 1. Because of the abuse of the filibuster, 41 senators representing less than 11 percent of the nation's population can, in principle, block action supported by 59 senators representing more than 89 percent of our population. And you wonder why it's so hard to get anything done in Washington?

David Roberts at Grist is hosting a series of articles on senate reform, initiated by a panel he was involved in at the recent "Netroots Nation" meeting. The series already includes several good articles, and I was particularly struck by this post from Senator Tom Udall, who is calling on his colleagues to change the rules (in several respects, but particularly the super-majority filibuster aspects) at the start of the next session.

The filibuster has clearly been abused in recent years to prevent needed action: hundreds of bills passed by the US House have not even been considered by the Senate, and many presidential nominations remain in limbo. But in principle I don't have a problem with super-majority requirements under some circumstances. The super-majority requirements for changing the constitution itself are sensible, for instance - when something's that important, it's important to get a large-scale consensus. Some limits on majority power make sense - minorities shouldn't be subject to "mob rule", their rights should be protected.

But the structure of the US Senate privileges only one specific minority - residents of less populous states. All other minorities, and in fact a majority of the US population in the largest states, gets short shrift. If we need to prevent "tyranny of the majority" the way to do that is with super-majority requirements (like the filibuster), not by retaining this antiquated unrepresentative structure that derives from the original Articles of Confederation, whose deficiencies were the reason the original Constitutional Convention was needed at all.

Aside from legislative paralysis, there are other problems the "2 senators per state" rule imposes on our nation. We currently have US citizens who live in areas with no legislative representation at all - in particular Puerto Rico, Washington DC, and the various island territories like Guam. Few people would object to any of these regions having full representation in the House of Representatives - they deserve equal representation just like everybody else. The problem is the Senate. Admitting any of them as states means two more senators, a loss of power by every existing state, and particularly a loss to the states with larger populations, as all of these regions have considerably lower population than the average US state now. The unrepresentative nature of the US Senate naturally raises opposition to statehood for any of them (and would similarly afflict any other entity that might wish to join).

Then there's the issue of lobbying - purchasing influence. Costs for campaigning for public office largely scale with the number of voters. So a senator from one of the smallest states would in general have a factor of 10 or more lower costs to win office than a senator from one of the largest ones. That means every dollar donated by lobbyists or political action committees is that factor of 10 or more more significant in the small state than the large one. Factionalism, corruption, and corporate control over our elected bodies is greatly facilitated by such a non-democratic state of affairs.

So if we're going to have to get essentially 100% approval to change the way states are represented in the Senate at all, why not go all the way to a fully representative body? Here's a concrete suggestion for doing just that.

Proposal 2

The Senate is composed of 99 members elected from 33 national senate districts (3 from each district). Senate districts are apportioned according to the enumerated population and are defined by the boundaries of contiguous House of Representatives districts, from one or more states. Each senator is elected for a six-year term, with each senate district electing one senator every 2 years.

That would mean, with the current 435-member House, between 13 and 14 house districts in each senate district. With the current US population of a little over 300 million that's a bit over 9 million people per senate district.

Under this proposal California would get 4 senate districts, and so 12 senators, compared to the current 2. Texas would likely get 3 districts, New York and Florida 2 each, and each of the other states the size of New Jersey or bigger would get 1. Other states would not have their own exclusive senators, but would share them with neighbors. For example the northern New England states (Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine) get a single senate district (with 1 or 2 house districts left over), so just 3 senators, instead of the 8 they have now.

Many of the states now have lower and upper bodies elected in roughly this representative manner. Why not go national?