Senate Refrom: A Sad Joke January 9, 2011Posted by rogerhollander in Democracy, Uncategorized.
Tags: constitution, democracy, filibuster, roger hollander, senate, senate reform
Roger Hollander, January 9, 2011
In reading about the pathetic efforts by certain Democratic Senators to change the filibuster rule, I am reminded of an article I wrote some time ago entitled, “The Constitution is Unconstitutional.” Like the British House of Lords and the Canadian Senate, the United States Senate is intrinsically an anti-democratic institution. It was meant to be that by the authors of the Constitution, who had a profound disrespect for and fear of genuine popular democracy. Even if the efforts to change the filibuster rule are successful, it will amount to little more than re-arranging the furniture on the Titanic.
Here is what I wrote in 2008 about the Senate (for the complete article, “The Constitution is Unconstitutional,” http://rogerhollander.wordpress.com/category/rogers-archived-writing/political-essays-roger/the-constitution-is-unconstitutional/)
Whereas in recent years Americans have become painfully aware of the Constitutionally ordained method for choosing their president through the arcane and Byzantine Electoral College and the winner-take-all principle of presidential primaries (thereby in effect potentially disenfranchising up to 49.9% of the voters in any given state), there exists what in my estimation is the most unjust and undemocratic principle written into our Constitution, and it is still there, and hardly anyone ever notices the implications, and it is virtually unamendable. I refer to the institution of the Senate of the United States of America.
There it is again in Article I. Section 3 reads simply, “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State …” Fifteen of the most undemocratic words you will ever read. Perhaps only second to the President him or herself (some day), the U.S. Senate has emerged as one of the most powerful institutions in the country. Its responsibilities are roughly parallel to those of the House of Representatives (known, significantly, as the “lower” house), but its powers to “advise and consent” on Presidential appointments give the Senate a great deal of extra leverage. And given that there are nearly five times the number of Representative than Senators, it gives each individual Senator just that much more power.
Consider how radically undemocratic is the United States Senate. California with a population of roughly thirty five million gets two measly Senators. One for every seventeen and a half million citizens. Wyoming, with its population of a half million, gets the same number as senators as California, one for every two hundred and fifty thousand citizens. That gives the Wyoming voter seventy times more senatorial power than the California voter. Not exactly consistent with the “one person one vote” principle. How this works in practice is even scarier. Traditionally Southern and rural states have been able to frustrate the will of the majority of Americans through its manipulation and control of the Senate. Their members accrued seniority and exercised power though the Senate’s inviolable Old Boy seniority system. This phenomenon was to a great extent responsible, for example, of maintaining racial segregation in the United States from the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s until the Supreme Court stepped in 1954, and the Civil Rights Movement pressured the Congress into enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
That has been the practice. In theory it could be even worse. The population of the United States is approximately 290 million. The largest 25 states (population-wise) make up a full 240 million of that (the population of California and Texas and New York combined is roughly equivalent to the population of the 32 smallest states: in the Senate, 6 votes versus 64). Therefore, representatives (overwhelmingly male and White to this day) of little more than 50 million Americans could in theory constitute a majority in the Senate and frustrate the will of the remaining 240 million. While it may never reach this extreme, it has and will continue to give drastically disproportionate power to a minority of Americans.
And guess what? It will probably never change. The British and Canadians, our two closest ideological neighbors, have made the British House of Lords and the Canadian Senate – their two “upper houses” – into largely ceremonial bodies. We could do the same, you exclaim. Thank God for the Amendment provision. Think again. I am no constitutional scholar, but what can Article V. of the Constitution mean if not an undemocratic Senate in perpetuity? It reads, “…no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.” (my emphasis). Can you imagine in your wildest dreams a State giving up its Senatorial votes? I have nothing against Wyoming, but really.