Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Yes, The Senate Is A Lousy Idea. So?

I know that Hendrik Hertzberg is a big reformer, especially on things like the U.S. Senate and the Electoral College, but I'm really not sure what the point is of his piece exposing the fact that Virginian James Madison and New Yorker Alexander Hamilton weren't big fans of the Great Compromise that set up the Senate.  

Moreoever, whatever they may have thought about representation of political divisions, as opposed to people, the fact that they were reluctant to glorify the virtues of malrepresentation in the Senate in a propaganda piece indented to sway the people of big-state New York is even less telling.  Of course New Yorkers (and Virginians) wanted House-style representation of people.  It's also a stretch to pick (logical) opponents of the Senate and say that they are the Framers who matter.  Presumably, there are other (small state) Framers who were making the argument that of course representation should be equal by state in the Congress, but their states should go along because it was the best they could get. 

Now, I happen to agree with Hertzberg (and nearly everyone else) that the two-per-state Senate is a terrible idea, and does not at all comport with generally accepted ideas of democracy.  Alas, there's also nothing that can be done about it under the Constitution, and given the relatively small effects it has had, there's no reason to dwell on it.  Nor does malapportionment in the Senate really tell us anything about whether the Senate we have should be run as a more majoritarian, more partisan, body. 

I do have a question, however: does anyone know whether Madison, Hamilton, or any of the others had anything to say about the principle of one person, one vote within their states (or even one voter, one vote)?  I don't really know anything about it, other than that by the 20th century most states were badly malapportioned.  Did any of them care about that, back then?


  1. Why do you think malapportionment in the Senate has had "relatively small effects?" Has anyone done research on this question?

    My suspicion is that the country would have developed very differently if the Senate didn't exist, and that the Northeast and upper Midwest would still be very prosperous (more like northern Europe), instead of hollowed out due to poor trade policies (mostly passed by Senators from those other regions) and years of federally funded economic development (the interstate highway system, military expansion, etc.) in the South and Southwest.

  2. >Alas, there's also nothing that can be done about it under the Constitution

    Hertzberg would disagree. In an essay from his book Politics, he argued that we could amend the Constitution to reform the Senate without violating Article V. His idea was to have half of the Senate elected by the Hare System.

  3. For John Jay's opinion, we can look to the New York Constitution of 1777, where article V and XII deal with septennial censuses and required changes in number of votes per county.

    For James Madison's opinion, we can look to the Virginia Constitution of 1776, which had a bias towards counties over cities, and gave the counties equal votes in the Assembly forever.

    So the short answer is that John Jay cared about one-person-one-vote, but James Madison mostly did not.

  4. And, for the framers as a group, you can look to the Constitution itself: Art I, Sec 2. Each state gets no more than 1 rep per 30K "people." I would argue that this implies that those districts should be of roughly equal populations.

    Technically, it doesn't actually imply that. But, it's a fair reading, I think.

  5. Jonathan, I think you can get some sense of Hamilton's position on one person one vote in the state from Federalist 68.

    "It was equally desirable that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to so complicated an investigation."

  6. Obviously there is too something that could be done about it under the Constitution: an amendment could be passed and ratified that changed the Senate. Yeah there is less chance of that happening than Sarah Palin becoming President, but it could.

  7. I think we'll see something happen if Texas and Florida go the way of California, and become Democratic states in national politics, which could happen in the next decade or so if Republicans turn all their attention to white voters.

    With a third of the population living in three states, and half the population living in, say, five or six states (up from nine currently), we could see odd election cycles where Democrats win the presidency and the house on the strength of minority voters concentrated in urban areas, but fail to get legislation passed because the Senate over-represents white interests.

    I think this scenario will cause a constitutional crisis, and political pressure will force rural, white states to give up some of their power in order to keep the country together. I don't know how this will happen, exactly, but I'm surprised that more people aren't concerned about it.

  8. Yeah, I'm not sure I buy the whole "no bad effects" of the Senate. Louis, with comment #1 makes a good point, but I'll also add that the Senate was a huge cause of the civil war. Remember that the only reason slave states could block attempts to restrict slavery in the territories was because they controlled half the Senate seats and thereby threatened to unravel the country every time a new state was admitted unless some concessions were made and/or another slave state were added to the union too.

    Get rid of the Senate, and the free states have much greater voting power, which probably allows slavery to be restricted early, before the slave states are overly reliant on cotton. An earlier resolution leaves slavery isolated in the South, makes it a non-issue politically, and ultimately the institution dies out by the late 1800s.

  9. The purpose of the grand compromise was simple.

    The smaller states would not have joined.

    What they had seen with England is that the larger populations ALWAYS crush the smaller ones in equal representation.
    And crush them to the point there is a civil war.

    There is an article by one of them, I can't seem to find it, that pointed out most civil wars are between urban and rural.
    He even showed how the war of Independence was that.

    The Senate is the only possible compromise that protects small states from the tyranny of large ones.

    To point out HOW IMPORTANT that concept is ... read Article V of the constitution.

    There is only one kind of amendment that is ILLEGAL.
    You are not allowed to give one State less Senators than any other state without THAT State's permission.

    Understand. You can have an amendment passed unanimously in the House and the Senate and ratified by 49 states ... if the one state you want to reduce their Senate representation says no ... it is no.

    Now some say if everyone has 0 senators, you have equal representation ... but others say if even ONE State refuses to ratify that, the amendment fails.
    This would and could be the ONLY case the USSC could rule on validity of a Constitutional amendment.

    That is how important the compromise was.
    Not only did they pass the compromise ... they made it IMPOSSIBLE to undo the compromise without pretty much unanimous consent.


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