Friday, October 21, 2011

FIXING THE SENATE

Article V of the United States Constitution, which tells us how it can be amended, ends with these words: “…no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.”

The constitution is full of compromises. Small states versus big states. Commercial states versus farming states. Slave states against free states.

Some delegates, I suppose, were afraid that their state might actually be ousted from the union. Or perhaps downgraded to second class status.

The bicameral legislature was itself the grandest compromise of all. One house reflecting population, the other protecting the sovereignty of every state, even the smallest.

I’ve heard it said that the United States Senate is the most prestigious debating society in the world.

Maybe so. But I wonder sometimes if its prestige doesn’t get in the way of its primary responsibility. That is to represent the sovereign states of the American union. In fact, the Senate calls itself “the living symbol of our union of states."

Senators are elected for six year terms. Every two years, a third of them are up for election. That means two thirds of them are not. At every national election between 32 and 35 Senators are on the ballot. At least sixty five of them are not.

The purpose of staggering senatorial terms is sensible. The Founders wanted it to be a stable body of statesmen with institutional memory who would tend to soften any rash change in public policy that might come from the House of Representatives.

Fair enough. And leavening the Senate with a third of its members reflecting the current mood of the voters is another good example of the compromises made in Philadelphia.

But I think if falls a bit short. The Senate, in effect, takes the temperature of only a two thirds of the nation every two years. The voters in the other 16 or 17 states may be up in arms and ready to throw the rascals out, but since there is no senator on the ballot in those states, they have no place to vent their views.

Something like one hundred million Americans are disenfranchised every two years!

The solution in my view is simple. If there were one hundred fifty instead of one hundred Senators, one from each state would face the voters every two years. The turnover would still be limited to a third of the body, so continuity would be assured, but the changing mood of the nation would be better reflected in that august assembly.

And with three, rather than two Senators from each state one other important thing could happen.

The United States Senate could vote by states, rather than by individual Senators. With three Senators from each state, they could be required to agree on the vote to be cast for their state.

At present, the Democrats control 17 state delegations in the Senate and the Republicans have 15. Eighteen states have split representation.

The result? A majority of the Senators never means a majority of the states!

You cannot count 51 votes in the Senate without at least half of your votes coming from Senators elected in states with equally divided delegations.

Another, perhaps less obvious benefit is this: senatorial arrogance would be diminished. United States Senators perceive themselves to be pretty important men and women. They hold up judicial appointments, they threaten filibusters, they kill legislation which may have passed the House by a wide majority.

Adding fifty Senators would dilute their prerogatives. Instead of one Senator stymying legislative progress, it would take at least two out of three from a state to stall the wheels of progress.

The shrinking of senatorial egos would be a blessing to the nation.

Of course, just adding bodies to the chamber is not enough. There needs to be some outside discipline imposed to prevent some of the obstructionist rules under which the senate operates.

A parliamentary body is a deliberative assembly. It is intended to afford rational debate, discussion and compromise. The sight of a lone Senator delivering an impassioned speech to an empty chamber is the height of embarrassment to our system of republican government.

You can see the British House of Commons on the telly. It may be a bit unruly, but they are all present, accounted for, and obviously paying attention.

Our Senate could use more face time.

2 comments:

  1. How would putting 50 more crooks into a house of 102 crooks improve it? A better idea 4 year terms 1/2 of Senate replaced every 4 years. Each state should have a recall procedure to control their Senators. Secondly only volunteer lobbyists should be permitted. Clean elections is the answer. To be supported by the State government with a special tax and ever candidate gets the same amount, there should a limit of $1000 per candidate per election of private funds.

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