We accept the oddities of our political regime like the stars in the sky. Natural, god-given, unchanging features of our society. This is not so. Worse, this complacency blinds us to the need for reform. Until a crisis, of course. Here is a rare article reflecting on an oddity of our Federal structure. It’s worth reading in full. The ending is probably deliberate irony.
- “The Gangs of D.C.“, Alec MacGillis, op-ed in the Washington Post, 8 August 2009 — “In the Senate, Small States Wield Outsize Power. Is This What the Founders Had in Mind?”
By Christopher, posted on Matthew Yglesias blog. Exaggerated, but goes to the heart of the matter.
The Senate will be the downfall of this country. When historians look back and wonder why the USA couldn’t keep up in the 21st century, they’ll say “because half the population was represented by 16 Senators, and 3% by another 16.”
Wonder why President Obama is having a hard time enacting his agenda after sweeping to victory and with large congressional majorities on his side? Look to the Senate, the chamber designed to thwart popular will. 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.
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 6 states that are among the least populous in the country: Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, Maine, New Mexico and Iowa.
Between them, those 6 states hold 8.4 million people — less than New Jersey — and represent 3% 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 6 states have 13 seats out of 435, 3% of the whole. In the Senate, those 6 members are crafting what may well be the blueprint for reform.
… The delegates finally settled on the Connecticut Compromise, or the Great Compromise. Seats in the lower chamber would be apportioned by population (with some residents counting more than others, of course) while seats in the upper chamber would be awarded two per state. The idea was to safeguard states’ rights at a time when the former colonies were still trying to get used to this new country of theirs. But the big/small divide was nothing like what we have today. Virginia, the biggest of the original 13 states, had 538,000 people in 1780, or 12 times as many people as the smallest state, Delaware.
Today, California is 70 times as large as the smallest state, Wyoming, whose population of 533,000 is smaller than that of the average congressional district, and, yes, smaller than that of Washington D.C., which has zero votes in Congress to Wyoming’s three. The 10 largest states are home to more than half the people in the country, yet have only a fifth of the votes in the Senate. The 21 smallest states together hold fewer people than California’s 36.7 million — which means there are 42 senators who together represent fewer constituents than Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. And under Senate rules, of course, those 42 senators — representing barely more than a tenth of the country’s population — can mount a filibuster.
… And then there’s the Senate’s age-old distortion of distributive politics, in which goodies are doled out on anything but a per-capita basis. California, Illinois, New York and New Jersey are among the 10 states that get the least back per tax dollar sent to Washington; Alaska, the Dakotas and West Virginia are among those that get the most.
… John Melcher, a Democrat who represented Montana in the Senate from 1977 to 1989, also takes a sanguine view. … it had not escaped him that his power in the august body was disproportionate to the size of his state. Not that he saw anything wrong with that.
“Small-population states and large land areas have quite a bit of influence … It’s proved to be okay, and hasn’t hurt the country. We’ve had astute leaders in low-populated states, they haven’t abused their power. … But of course I’m saying that from an admittedly biased point of view. I’m a Westerner. And I think it’s fine.”
Alec MacGillis is a reporter on the national staff of The Washington Post.
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Here are previous posts in the FM series about the Constitution.
- Forecast: Death of the American Constitution, 4 July 2006
- The Constitution: wonderful, if we can keep it, 15 February 2008
- Congress shows us how our new government works, 14 April 2008
- See the last glimmers of the Constitution’s life…, 27 June 2008
- Remembering what we have lost… thoughts while looking at the embers of the Constitution, 29 June 2008
- A report card for the Republic: are we still capable of self-government?, 3 July 2008
- Another step away from our Constitutional system, with applause, 19 September 2008
- What comes after the Consitution? Can we see the outlines of the “Mark 3″ version?, 10 November 2008
- Are Americans still willing to bear the burden of self-government?, 27 March 2009
- “Lights, Camera, Democracy” by Lewis Lapham, 24 May 2009
- “The Constitution that I interpret and apply is not living, but dead.” – Supreme Court Justice Scalia, 9 June 2009