Issue #44

Last Update March 2, 2006

National The US Senate by Gerry Krownstein  In an article in the May issue of Harpers, Richard N. Rosenfeld argues for abolishing the US Senate on the grounds that it is an undemocratic institution. He traces the origin of the Senate to a series of compromises with the smaller states during the framing of the Constitution, resulting in a legislative body whose membership, unlike that of the House of Representatives, was unrepresentative of the people in number (two Senators per state, regardless of population), wealth, and method of selection. It was not until 1913 that the Constitution was amended to require direct election of Senators; previously they had been chosen by state legislatures.

In Rosen's mind, the huge disparity in the number of citizens each Senator represents makes the body undemocratic, and an impediment to carrying out the will of the people. The nine states whose citizens make up more than half the population have only 18% of the votes in the Senate, while the twenty six smallest states, controlling a majority of the Senate vote, account for only  18% of the population. Furthermore, any measure requiring more than a majority (cutting off debate, approving a Constitutional amendment, etc.) can be vetoed by 17 states representing about 7% of the US population, or approved by 34 states with less than 40% of the population. A Senator from California represents 17.5 million people; a Senator from Wyoming represents 250,000. Such an imbalance gives less populated states far too much power, Rosen argues, and skews Senate demographics to also make it unrepresentative of the people ethnically, racially, and from an income and gender perspective as well.

Rosen wants to abolish the Senate because he also sees it as unnecessary; originally designed as a tool to retain control in the hands of the wealthy, he feels that two legislative houses embody a paradox: if the purpose of one is to prevent the other from doing something foolish, why not just keep the less foolish body and dispense with the other? 

In fact, while his points regarding the disparity in representation are well taken, his other arguments as to the dispensability of the Senate are not. Two different bodies, with different duties, different tenure and different districting, can and do act as checks on each other's worst tendencies. The real problem is the enormous unfairness of the differences in number of people represented by each Senator. We are a nation of people, not territories, and a reduction in this disparity would be beneficial. To this end, I propose a simple rule, to be applied in determining the composition of the Senate and the Electoral College, the number of block grants given to states, and in determining the number of states required to ratify a Constitutional amendment: no state shall be considered a state if it has a population less than that of Brooklyn. By no real coincidence, the 17 states able to veto a super majority action in the Senate fall into this category.

To implement this, any state with a population of less than 2.5 million (the approximate population of Brooklyn) would be required, for Federal purposes, to merge with a state or states adjoining until the minimum population requirements are met. In effect, these states would lose their Senators (unless several small adjacent states merged to become a big state, which case their number of Senators would merely be reduced, not eliminated) while retaining their Representatives. Since the small states are scattered all around the country (New England, the Middle Atlantic States, the mountain West, the Prairie states, the Southwest, as well as Alaska and Hawaii) except the deep South, this plan can't be construed as displaying regional bias, nor does it overwhelming advantage either Red states or Blue. Does anybody really think we need two Dakotas?

We would end up with 14 fewer states (Main and New Hampshire could merge, as could the two Dakotas and Nebraska, and Utah and Wyoming), and a population disparity per Senate seat of 14 to 1, instead of the present 70 to 1 still not great, but much better. The power of the larger states would be enhanced, but not at the cost of making the smaller states powerless.

Any of these states could continue to consider itself a state for local purposes, electing a governor and state legislature and maintaining its own governmental services, or they could truly merge with their Federal partner states and save money by eliminating governmental duplication.

At the rate its population is changing (currently losing 1.3 percent of its population in three years), North Dakota will be completely depopulated before the next century is over. Should an empty state really have two votes in the Senate?

New York Stringer is published by NYStringer.com. For all communications, contact David Katz, Editor and Publisher, at david@nystringer.com

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