Is The U.S. Senate a Dinosaur?
Source Steven Hill
Date 99/05/01/02:13

/* Written 2:23 PM Mar 11, 1998 by in igc:labr.all */
/* ---------- "Is The U.S. Senate a Dinosaur?" ---------- */
> From Tue Mar 10 00:05:16 1998
> Date: Mon, 9 Mar 1998 23:24:26 -0800 (PST)
> From: Steven Hill
> Subject: Is The U.S. Senate a Dinosaur?
> Is The U.S. Senate a Dinosaur?
> By Steven Hill
> The latest attempt at campaign finance legislation, known as the
> McCain-Feingold bill, went down to defeat recently, courtesy of another
> filibuster in the U.S. Senate. Is anybody surprised that, once again, the
> foxes declined to board up the hen house that feeds their appetites?
> What is this filibuster business, anyway? McCain-Feingold had the support of
> a majority of Senators, but under the arcane rules of the U.S. Senate, a
> majority isnít enough to get anything done because 41% can block a vote on
> legislation. That flies in the face of a revered democratic tradition called
> "majority-rule."
> As undemocratic as a filibuster seems, the full enormity of the problem is
> far worse. Because of the unique way that the U.S. Senate allots
> representationóbased on two Senators per state instead of by populationóitís
> possible that Senators representing only 10 percent of the nation can block
> legislation desired by the other 90 percent.
> Consider this: California has 66 times as many people as Wyoming, yet these
> states have the same representation in the U.S. Senate. Texas, with 19
> million people, has the same representation as Montana, with less than 1
> million people. A Senator in Rhode Island represents 500,000 residents
> while a Senator in New York represents 9 million.
> According to author Michael Lind, writing recently in Mother Jones, today
> half of the Senate can be elected by 15 percent of the American people, and
> only 10 percent can elect 40 percent of the Senate. By filibustering,
> Senators representing little more than one-tenth of the nation can block
> reforms supported by the House, the President and their fellow Senators, who
> represent the other 90 percent of the country.
> Whatís more, because of its special constitutional role approving
> presidential appointments, including judicial offices and confirming
> treaties, the Senate has a powerful influence on all three branches of
> government.
> Filibusters and pork-barreling by Senators representing a minority of the
> population arenít just mathematically possible or political theory.
> According to a report called Monopoly Politics released by our Center for
> Voting and Democracy, the nine most conservative states with only 5 percent
> of the nationís population control 18 percent of Senate seats. In other
> words, these conservative states are over-represented in the Senate by three
> and a half times.
> This conservative bloc has used its over-representation to great advantage
> in the Senate. For example, in 1991 the Senate voted 52-48 to appoint
> Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court, even though Senators supporting
> Thomas represented a minority of the American people. From 1981-87,
> President Ronald Reagan would have faced a Democratic Senate if the Senate
> had been elected on the basis of population. Urban policy and assistance
> for inner cities have been bottled up by Senators representing conservative
> low-population rural states. And now, these same conservative Senators, led
> by Senate leader Trent Lott from Mississippi, have joined with Republican
> Senators from big states like Texas and Pennsylvania, to kill campaign
> finance reform.
> How ironicóthe same Senators who balked at the nominations of Lani Guinier
> and Bill Lann Lee because of those nomineesí support for affirmative action
> wield disproportionate power due to arcane Senate rules that over-represent
> low-population states. This is not an issue of conservatives vs. liberals
> or Democrats vs. Republicans, itís an issue of fairness. It wasnít that
> long ago that Democratic Senators like Frank Church (Idaho) and Mike
> Mansfield (Montana) wielded mighty legislative hammers that benefited their
> low-population states.
> The U.S. Senate was originally designed by the Founding Fathers as a
> compromise to settle the Big State vs. Little State controversy. But the
> solution solved one dilemma only to create others that still haunt our
> nation. There are only two routes to balancing representation in the
> Senate. One is to amend the U.S. Constitution, which is an arduous path
> that, ironically enough, requires two thirds support in the Senate and no
> doubt would be blocked by the same Senators that benefit from the status
> quo. Another route is voluntary division of the big states into smaller
> states, with each new state allocated two Senators. But neither solution
> will be politically viable any time soon. In the meantime, Senators from
> low-population states will continue brandishing disproportionate legislative
> power.
> Most legislatures, not only in the U.S. but around the world, base
> representation on population. This is a principle that many popular
> revolutions and struggles have fought for and wrested from kings, dictators
> and tyrants. Itís a sound principle, and one that our American democracy
> proudly exported to the rest of the world, so many years ago.
> Except in the U.S. Senate. That body is in the running for the least
> representative legislature among western democracies, outside the British
> House of Lords. Itís time to scrutinize more closely this antiquated
> legislative body that is so unrepresentative of the American people.
> Steven Hill is the west coast director of the Center for Voting and
> Democracy ( The views in this piece are his own.

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