It’s time to abolish the Senate

On Monday, June 11, 1787, kicking-off the fifth week of the United States Constitutional Convention in the old Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia, Mr. Roger Sherman took the floor and recommended the legislature for the newly independent United States of America consist of two houses, with one house apportioned by each state’s population and the other apportioned equally among the states.  This deal, which came to be known as the Great Compromise, organized America's legislative branch into the House of Representatives and the Senate respectively, and has been in place for a little over two centuries.  Under Sherman’s proposal, the will of the people (and let’s remember voting at that time was restricted to white men) would be expressed in the House of Representatives, while the Senate would express the interests of each of the states, conceived of as individual sovereign entities unto themselves rather than as constituting a wholly cohesive nation — an analogous body today would be the European Union.  Indeed, until 1913 — just 106 years ago — senators were elected not by the people but by the legislature of their respective states.

US Constitutional Convention

The idea was that a small (in population) state like Rhode Island needed to have equal power in the legislature as a larger (again, in numbers of free, white men) state like Massachusetts — if they each had two senators, the theory was that Rhode Island could protect its interests from being overrun by Massachusetts’.  There is a certain elegant logic to it.

This system was put into place to govern the roughly 4 million Americans who comprised the newly independent nation of 13 states.  However, today, in a nation of more than 325 million people and an additional 37 states, not only is that structure antiquated, it’s downright un-representative.  Take California where I live:  we have almost 40 million people, while the combined population of the 20 smallest states totals less than that.  Yet because of a 232 year-old political deal, those 20 states have 40 senators, while California has just two.  Now I ask you thoughtful reader, how is that “representative” government?  The sparsely populated, usually conservative states can block legislation supported by a majority of the American people, ensuring an ideological advantage that threatens everything from reproductive rights to advances made under the law in the last century for racial, gender, and sexual minorities.

US Capitol west side

Take the state of Wyoming with a population of 575,000.  There are fewer people in the entire state than in just the 36th congressional district of California where I live, where we have 750,645 people.  Here in Palm Springs, we are represented by Democratic Representative Raul Ruiz, who represents the liberal/progressive values of this region of the country; yet his efforts are often blocked because while he may vote in favor of a piece of legislation that reflects the will of his sizable constituency, and should a good bill make it through the House, it may die on the floor of the Senate because of the outsized influence of smaller states.

In the last 18 years, we’ve seen the loser of the popular vote become president twice through the Electoral College system, which gives that same disproportionate weight to small states, each of which gets two automatic votes for its two senators.

The situation is even more dire when you take the changing demographics of the United States into account.  By the year 2050, 70% of all Americans will be living in just 15 states, and that 70% will have only 30 senators representing their interests in the US Senate.  The remaining 30% of the people, from the 35 remaining states which tend to be smaller and poorer, will have 70 senators!  This is effectively minority rule!

Whatever you call it, it is not democracy.

Take the case of Merrick Garland.  On March 16, 2016, President Barack Obama nominated him to serve as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court to fill the vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.  The Republican-led Senate refused to hold a hearing or vote on this nomination made during the last year of a Democratic presidency, in an unprecedented move that saw a majority of senators representing a minority (population-wise) of Americans stall Judge Garland's nomination for 293 days, almost a year, until it expired on January 3, 2017, at the end of the 114th Congress.  A new president of their party in place, senators of the 115th Congress moved to immediately confirm Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court after he was nominated by the freshly-inaugurated President Trump, affecting the law of the land for a generation.

Daniel Lazare, a journalist who specializes in American politics and has written three books on constitutional issues, argued in Jacobin in 2014:

The US Senate is by now the most unrepresentative major legislature in the “democratic world.” Thanks to the principle of equal state representation, which grants each state two senators regardless of population, the great majority of people end up grossly marginalized by the body. It’s a problem that has only gotten worse over time.

  • Although California has the same number of votes as Wyoming, its population, currently at 38.3 million, is now some sixty-five times larger. One Californian thus has 1.5 percent of the voting clout in Senate elections as someone living just a few hundred miles to the east.
  • Since a majority of Americans now live in just nine states, they wind up with just eighteen votes while the minority holds eighty-two, a ratio of better than four to one.
  • Thanks to the Senate’s bizarre filibuster rules, forty-one senators representing less than 11 percent of the population can prevent any bill from even coming to a vote.
  • Thanks to the requirement that proposed constitutional amendments be approved by at least two-thirds of each house, thirty-four senators from states representing just 5 percent of the population can veto any constitutional change, no matter how minor.
  • The same goes for treaties, which also require two-thirds approval.
  • The Senate “hold” system is even more unjust since it allows a single senator representing as little as one citizen in a thousand to stall a bill or executive appointment almost indefinitely.

The upshot is one of the most cockeyed systems of minority rule in history, one that allows tiny coteries to hold the entire country ransom until their demands are met.

Since the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States via the Electoral College despite the fact that he lost the popular vote of the American people by 2,864,903 votes, more and more people are feeling like the Electoral College’s usefulness has passed — it’s an outdated idea made obsolete by the passage of time and a changing country.  Why not the Senate too?  It would take an organized national movement, strategic leadership that could articulate why such a move would benefit the country, and massive organizing.  But it can be done

Don’t “make America great again.”  Make America greater.  Abolish the Senate.

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