It used to be that proponents of abolishing the Electoral College were not really ready to say that they were willing to get rid of the Senate. Perhaps, that is coming to an end and the Senate is now fair game.
Alec MacGillis, a Washington Post reporter, has an essay discussing those powerful senators who represent small states yet hold a disproportionate amount of power in the Senate. And since there is a correlation between rural, small population states and states that vote Republican, those senators tend to be a bit more moderate since they have to pick up the votes of the same sort of voter who voted for both George W. Bush and John McCain. MacGillis thinks this is just darn unfair.
There is much grousing on the left about the filibuster, the threat of which has taken such hold that routine bills now need 60 votes. Getting less attention is the undemocratic character of the Senate itself.Gee, that Constitution sure is inconvenient. It's so 18th century to care about federalism. MacGillis pooh poohs the Founders' interest in seeing the Senate as a moderating influence on possible extremism of the House. He rehearses the role that the Senate took as being the brake that the southern states had on any limitation on slavery before the Civil War or on preventing civil rights for decades. Yes, the Senate did serve that role, but is blocking cap and trade or the House's health care plans equivalent to preventing civil rights for minorities?
Why, for example, have even Democratic senators been resistant on health-care reform? It might be because so many of the key players represent so few of the voters who carried Obama to victory -- and so few of the nation's uninsured. The Senate Finance Committee's "Gang of Six" that is drafting health-care legislation that may shape the final deal -- without a public insurance option -- represents six states that are among the least populous in the country: Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, Maine, New Mexico and Iowa.
Between them, those six states hold 8.4 million people -- less than New Jersey -- and represent 3 percent of the U.S. population. North Dakota and Wyoming each have fewer than 80,000 uninsured people, in a country where about 47 million lack insurance. In the House, those six states have 13 seats out of 435, 3 percent of the whole. In the Senate, those six members are crafting what may well be the blueprint for reform.
Climate change legislation, which passed in the House, also faces daunting odds. Why? Because agriculture, coal and oil interests hold far more sway in the Senate. In the House, the big coal state of Wyoming has a single vote to New York's 29 and California's 53. In the Senate, each state has two. The two Dakotas (total population: 1.4 million) together have twice as much say in the Senate as does Florida (18.3 million) or Texas (24.3 million) or Illinois (12.9 million).
MacGillis also points to how senators from rural states maintain our distorted agricultural program including big subsidies for farmers. I would point out to MacGillis that most states have agricultural interests. California and New York senators will also be concerned with getting benefits for their farmers. It isn't the fault of the set-up of the Senate that continues these policies. It is the nature of the entire Congress. Do House representatives not vote for such subsidies and pork? Of course not.
Since we could not get rid of either the Electoral College or the equal representation of states in the Senate without a Constitutional amendment, there won't be a change any time soon. Ratification of an amendment requires 3/4 of the states so even small states would have an effective veto over any such change. So keep a lookout for the next effort to change the amendment procedure. Why should those small states be able to block change that bigger states prefer? Which can only be done by an amendment. Ironic, eh?
Fortunately, the Founders were much more concerned about putting brakes on popular passions than modern pundits are today.
UPDATE: Byron York comments on MacGillis's essay.
Like those progressives who dislike other parts of the legislative process, MacGillis seems not to appreciate the idea that the parts of the system work together to create a democratic and representative whole. Sure there are imbalances. For example, you could argue that the three most important people advancing Obama's agenda in the House are from San Francisco (Pelosi); Hollywood (Waxman); and Massachusetts (Rep. Barney Frank). Are they representative of the country as a whole? The short answer is no. They're not required to be. But if you put their leadership together with other balances within the House, and then against the different structure of the Senate, you've got a system that is both responsive to the expression of the voters' will last November and respectful of minorities as well. So as far as changing the Constitution is concerned -- well, maybe not.