The Case for Abolishing the Senate

The House sucks because it’s comprised by 3 political parties who are rarely able to form a governing coalition; and is headed by a Speaker whose primary goal is to hang on to his Speakership. The House has the potential to not suck, as has been observed in the recent past. The Senate, however, blows by design, and we’d be better off without it.

This isnt about the filibuster – a noble device, misused by the ignoble. It’s about 8 Senate votes for 3 million people living in Alaska, N. Dakota, S,Dakota and Wyoming – and 8 votes for 100 million people – one-third of the US population – living in the California, New York, Florida and Texas.

America’s 312 million people break down to roughly 3 million per senator. To be fair, California should have 12 senators, Texas should have 7, and New York and Florida should have 6 each; those 4 sparsely populated states should share 1. The absurdity of the filibuster isnt a 40% Senate minority gumming up the works – it’s the 27% minority of the US population they potentially represent.

The Constitution was an arranged marriage of 13 sovereign states, and the geographical basis of the US legislature reflects that genesis. Delegates to Philadelphia in 1783 represented individual states, not ideologies. America then lacked political parties, which would only emerge a decade later. If a Constitutional Convention were held today, delegates would adhere to political, not geographical, allegiances – and the legislature they’d create would be very different.

In 1783, our forefathers designed a legislature to ensure that every state, large and small, had a voice. They designed the Senate specifically to give a disproportionately large voice to small states, to induce their ratification. Today, we’d likely be concerned with protecting the voice of minority political factions, not tiny municipalities. While respect for minorities is an essential feature of any modern republic, 1783’s logic of protecting Rhode Island and Connecticut from New York and Virginia is inapplicable to us today, and does no more than arbitrarily inflate or undercut competing ideologies, according to geographical happenstance, not actual popular support.

The problem is that modern minorities arent the residents of particular states. Gays, blacks, hispanics, feminists, greens, libertarians and neo-cons are the real minorities – not Montanans and Vermonters – and US democracy, unfortunately, lacks the means for such groups to obtain meaningful representation in their legislature. This is why the courts have become the defenders of the disenfranchised, through such landmark cases as Brown v. the Board of Ed., Roe v. Wade and Lawrence v. Texas. Conservatives often complain of liberal judges “legislating from the bench” – but it’s a consequence of our legislature’s outmoded design. Given that the one “minority” it protects doesnt require protection, the US Senate has become superfluous. Its elimination would enhance American democracy.

The kicker is that the composition of the Senate is uniquely shielded from the ordinary Constitutional amendment process. With two-thirds of both houses and three-quarters of the states, you can eliminate free speech, establish a religion or make Pope Francis the Chief Justice – but to change the composition of the Senate, you need the approval of EVERY small state. However we can amend the Constitution to strip the Senate of its power, zero-out senatorial salaries and office budgets, and convert the chamber into a ceremonial body, like the UK’s House of Lords. (Yes, I understand the Senate is ALREADY a meeting house for the idle rich, but….)

In place of the Senate, the US would benefit from a legislative house organized not by geography but by party. We might have a national election, and whatever fraction a party wins would translate into a proportional number of seats. Any political party that enjoys popularity above a certain threshold (typically 5%) would have a legislative voice. Such “proportional representation” systems worldwide are associated with higher voter turnout, for the simple reason that every last vote counts toward electoral outcomes. Gerrymandering – which is all about converting ideology into geography, and which renders most votes in Congressional elections worthless – is impossible in such a system.

I’m advocating a radical solution – but the US Senate’s problem goes to its very roots, and as such, half-measures will not suffice. The ongoing crisis in the House – in which Democrats hold a significant plurality against a weak coalition of the Tea Party and GOP – will eventually work itself out. But the fundamental problem of the Senate is intractable. Ancient and grand, and sometimes even noble, the US Senate no longer serves us, and for the good of the republic, it should be abolished.

 

Refs:

Const. Art V. The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution… which 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; Provided… that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proportional_representation

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voter_turnout#Proportionality

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