That the U.S. Constitution is a work of genius is taken for granted by many Americans. It is “bedrock,” our “sacred text.” One might think its text was immutable, but it did contain a provision for amendments, which would tend to imply that its authors knew it wasn’t going to be perfect. The Constitution has […]
That the U.S. Constitution is a work of genius is taken for granted by many Americans. It is “bedrock,” our “sacred text.” One might think its text was immutable, but it did contain a provision for amendments, which would tend to imply that its authors knew it wasn’t going to be perfect. The Constitution has been modified 27 times, with another six passed by Congress but never approved.
Some amendments were trivial, some epic in their impact. No amendment has made a fundamental shift in our governing structure. The existence of three branches, including a Congress with a House and Senate and a president elected for four years have all remained. And that includes at least one big problem.
The United States Senate, as it is currently constituted, represents a fundamental block to effective government in this country, and that block is inherent in its structure of two senators per state.
I’ll discuss that, and then give another presidential election update.
That the Senate has declined from being “the world’s greatest deliberative body” into a clog in American governance is understood by many. Filibusters prevent useful legislation, confirmation of judges has become politicized beyond tolerance and it is generally a conservative institution that blocks needed reform of health care, the budget or saving the economy.
But what is the cause of this? What makes the Senate an institution where one member can block a judge from appointment and where it takes 60, not 50 votes to accomplish anything in a 100 member body?
One can look at both social and structural factors. Our politics have become more polarized and that means that the congeniality of previous days where there was cooperation to move things forward is gone.
The expansion and annual approval of the Food Stamp program used to be jointly promoted by a conservative Republican senator (Bob Dole) and a liberal Democratic one (George McGovern). Both being from farm states, they saw the value of doing things to promote the purchase of food. Their names are now both on an Agriculture Department program to promote nutrition among the world’s poor and in 2008 they jointly received the World Food Prize for their years of work to limit hunger.
Dole and McGovern agreed on very little. But they agreed that finding agreement where you can is a good idea and can promote things that you want. They understood that it is all right if the “other side” gains as long as your side gains also. That spirit has clearly declined in U.S. politics over recent years and be replaced by a scorched earth policy that is perfectly willing to see your own side, and even your own country, suffer to prevent your opponent from claiming a victory.
No doubt this has destroyed the ability of the Senate to function on unanimous consent, to limit filibusters to extreme situations and to compromise and horse trade. But the House of Representatives has not suffered quite the same problems.
Two per state
The Senate, of course, is based on states, not on population. Each state has two senators. That was a necessary compromise, it appears, to get the constitution approved by the original 13 states. Even in 1789, there was a significant difference between the states in terms of population. When the first census was done in 1790, Virginia’s population was 21 times larger than Tennessee’s. In the 2010 census that ratio had grown to 66 between the population of California and the population of Wyoming.
Wyoming’s two senators speak for 560,000 people; California’s for 37 million. To put that in perspective, California is analogous to Canada, Algeria or Poland. And Wyoming is analogous to Macau or Western Sahara.
To put it another way: the 37 million people in California have two senators, and the 36 million living in 21 states with the smallest population have 42 senators. If another country did this, or our organizations did this we would sue. And, in fact, the U.S. Supreme Court did declare, in Reynolds vs. Sims (377 U.S. 533 1964) that the very process of apportionment used by the U.S. Senate was unconstitutional when done by a state. As a result, all state legislatures, their house and senate both, are strictly apportioned by population.
The 21 small states are not a random sample of the U.S. Of those 21 states, most, but not all, are predominately rural in culture and economy. The largest of those 21 is Iowa, followed by Mississippi, Arkansas, Kansas and Utah. Even Iowa is almost the population of Wyoming, Vermont and North Dakota together.
If you assign states to the category of “rural” or “urban” and include the old south as rural, you can identify 26 states containing 120 million people that can outvote the 25 states (and the District of Columbia) that contain 193 million people. They couldn’t do that in the House of Representatives. The difference of perspective is more evident when you look at presidential voting. McCain won those states 171 to 45, in terms of electoral votes. Obama won the urban states 319 to 3.
Rural people are entitled to be represented, but in essence, the U.S. Senate is a body controlled and oriented to a combination of the interests of rural America and the interests of large corporations that influence all of our politics.
How could this be broken? I have no idea. The “two senators per state” rule is about as firmly fixed in our process as could be imagined. Any constitutional amendment would have to pass the very Senate it seeks to change, and there is little prospect that small states would demote themselves by allowing larger states to have even a little additional representation in the Senate.
I suppose it is theoretically possible, if in the realm of science fiction, that some states (like the Dakotas) could merge into one state, but that also would be so dramatically against the self-interest of the states in question that they would never agree to it.
Perhaps we might decide that cities (or metro areas) should be recognized in addition to states. So we could give two senators to Los Angeles and two to San Francisco in addition to the two for the rest of the state. This also seems very unlikely.
It might also be possible, that, over a long period of time, the continuing expansion of the Internet that reduces isolation and a significant increase in “outsourcing” of business to rural America might slowly redress the population imbalance or slowly bring the interests of small and large states into alignment.
The only alternative is some sort of dramatic crisis that allows a moment of flexibility that could change this. It doesn’t seem likely.
More plausible is that the Senate is reformed to at least force it to be more driven by majority rule and less susceptible to minorities blocking things. That could help.
Presidential election update
Two weeks ago we could see the impact of the post-convention bounce for Obama. Now, we can perhaps assess the post-debate pothole as well. As always, this analysis distills data reported at Pollster.com.
The short answer is that most, but not all, of Obama’s post convention bounce has evaporated, leaving him, as he was four weeks ago, with a slight but effective lead. Four weeks ago his projected electoral vote total was 274, just barely above the 270 needed to win. Two weeks ago his total had surged to 303, now it is back to 290. Unless the polls do not yet reflect all of the sag, it seems that the media frenzy about Obama being behind is overdone.
Romney leads by five points or more in states with 191 electoral votes, and that number has stayed constant for weeks. There are no states where he leads, but leads with less than five points – and that has also been consistently true over four weeks. There are about 100 electoral votes in states where Obama leads by four points or less or the polls show an actual tie.
So the election remains as it has been: Romney needs to win almost all of the states where Obama is narrowly ahead or tied to win, Obama needs to win just a few of them.