Blow Up the Senate

It’s time to dismantle the United States Senate and replace it with a more democratic institution.

For 220 years, the Senate has done its job as it was designed — which happens to be its greatest flaw. It was created as a bulwark against popular will, as an institution meant to slow change and keep the rabble from interfering with the prerogatives of power.

James Madison said as much in the Federalist Papers (No. 62), calling it an “additional impediment ... against improper acts of legislation.”

“The necessity of a senate,” he wrote, “is not less indicated by the propensity of all single and numerous assemblies to yield to the impulse of sudden and violent passions, and to be seduced by factious leaders into intemperate and pernicious resolutions.”

Translation: An elite body is needed to temper the passions of the rabble, to act on capital’s behalf and maintain order.

So we have a 100-member body that gives equal representative weight to small and large states — so that New Jersey, where I live, a state with nearly 9 million people, has exactly the same number of senators as Wyoming, a state with a little more than half a million people, and California, which has nearly 37 million residents.

The smallest 26 states, in fact, which account for 52 senators — a majority — represent just 19% of the US population, less than the total number of people living in Texas and California.

That effectively gives senators in states like Wyoming and Montana an oversized impact on representation, which was exactly the problem that the Supreme Court was concerned with many of the apportionment cases it decided during the 1960s.

Consider the power wielded by Max Baucus during the healthcare debate. Baucus, a conservative Democratic senator from Montana (0.3% of the national population) who heads up the Senate Finance Committee, had great latitude to draft the Senate’s health care bill. Or the outsized influence of Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Republican from Maine (0.4% of the population, who essentially has become the most powerful member of the Senate as the Democrats seek to put a bipartisan imprint on the legislation — and also avoid a filibuster.

The filibuster, that arcane leftover from a bygone era in which senators acted as American nobleman, is just one of more than a handful of Senate rules that exacerbate the so-called upper house’s antidemocratic nature. The filibuster (the right to endless debate), Senate hold (the power of individual senators to object to legislation and essentially delay its consideration indefinitely) and cloture (a procedural vote ending debate or overriding a hold) work together to stall legislation, giving more power to an even smaller number of senators.

In theory, senators representing just 11% of the national population (the 21 smallest states) can band together to prevent a cloture vote, giving a small minority of the country the power to override even the most popular of political agendas. That’s what we’re seeing now in the healthcare debate and with some of President Barack Obama’s cabinet appointments.

In the healthcare debate, in particular, polls show massive public support for the so-called “public option” (a publicly run health insurance plan that would be available as an alternative to and competition for private insurance companies); but a coalition of Republican senators and a handful of conservative Democrats mostly from the South and the nation’s smallest states has forced not just the senate but the House to water down its health reform proposals.

What all of this makes clear is that the political system needs to be changed. We need to do more than change the way we pay for campaigns — which is important. We also need to tear down the senate and rebuild it as a more democratic institution. The first thing we should do, of course, is put an end to the mix of rules and arcane customs that distort an already distorted power structure. That means no more filibuster or hold — or at the very least an end to the supermajority requirement for cloture.

That’s not enough, however. More broad-reaching reform is needed, which could take the form of proportional representation that ignores state lines, a new geographical approach to apportionment that, again, ignores state lines, or something else.

To many, this kind of reform might seem extreme, but we have altered the Senate in the past — the 17th amendment, ratified in 1913, stripped state legislatures of the responsibility for choosing senators and gave that power to voters. Other amendments have altered the Constitution, by clarifying the rights we hold as citizens, There is nothing, therefore, that is sacrosanct about the Senate. It has changed with the times and should change again so that it can reflect the will of a majority of the people.

Hank Kalet is a poet and the managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and The Cranbury Press. Email; blog,; Twitter,; Facebook,

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2009

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