Abolish the Senate!

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Nov. 2 2000 5:29 PM

Abolish the Senate!

There are two Green parties currently operating in the United States. This has caused some confusion for Ralph Nader. Nader is the presidential nominee of the Association of State Green Parties. He is not a member of the Green Party USA. Although the Green Party USA supports Nader's candidacy, Nader has taken pains not to associate himself with its platform because it's more radical than that of Nader's Association of State Green Parties. Nader is particularly touchy about the Green Party USA's plank to "[a]bolish the disproportional, aristocratic U.S. Senate," which a few people have cited as solid-gold evidence that the Greens (hence Nader) are insane. "I'm not for the abolition of the Senate," Nader told The Washington Post last summer. "There's so many bad things going through Congress I want two opportunities to stop them." Nader's Association of State Green Parties has a platform that makes no mention of abolishing the Senate. It intends to keep the Senate right where it is.

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That's a real shame because abolishing the U.S. Senate, far from being insane, would be very good idea. Indeed, Chatterbox much prefers it to many other policies Nader is advocating this election season (such as gutting the World Trade Organization). As George Will points out in today's column, it's totally inconsistent to favor abolishing the Electoral College--as so many respectable people sensibly do when they consider the troubling prospect that the next president may fail to win the popular vote--without also favoring abolishing the Senate. Here's Will's argument:

Delaware, the least populous state in 1789, understandably was the first to ratify the Constitution with its equal representation of states in the Senate: Virginia, the most populous, had 11 times more voters. Today Wyoming's senators' votes can cancel those of California's senators, who represent 69 times more people. If that offends you, so does America's constitutional federalism.

Go to the head of the class, George! Where Will goes wrong is in thinking this clinches the argument for keeping both the Electoral College and the Senate. In fact, it reinforces Chatterbox's conviction that we should get rid of both.

In 1962, the Supreme Court ruled in Baker v. Carr that the voters of Tennessee were being denied their constitutional right to equal protection under the law because the state's apportionment of legislative districts bore little relation to the distribution of the population. This decision was the first of several that affirmed the principle of "one man, one vote." (Click here for a cogent overview by Arizona Rep. Morris Udall.) One man, one vote is a wonderful idea, and it has transformed representative democracy in America. Unfortunately, it's never been tried in the Senate, where states with little populations are represented by the same number of people as states with big populations. Well sure, you say, that's our federal system. States have to be treated equally, or else the little ones will lose out. But who cares if they lose out? States don't vote. People do!

Full disclosure: Chatterbox grew up in California, which has the largest population of any state, which means that, per capita, it is the least-represented in the Senate. Some might argue that this biases Chatterbox in favor of abolishing the Senate. But Chatterbox currently lives in the District of Columbia, which, should it ever achieve statehood, will be ludicrously overrepresented, per capita, in the Senate. Chatterbox is also a Democrat, and the Senate is currently expected to remain in Republican hands. Partisan bias! For most of Chatterbox's life, however, the Democrats have had control of the Senate. If not next year, they'll get it back sometime soon. Still, the Senate should go.

The most eloquent and persuasive argument Chatterbox has seen in favor of ditching the Senate is laid out in Thomas Geoghegan's 1998 book, The Secret Lives of Citizens. Because each state is granted equal representation in the Senate regardless of population, Geoghegan writes, "a man who might own a gas station in Idaho might have more say in foreign policy than the whole Trilateral Commission." Mindful that a filibuster can only be stopped by a vote of three-fifths of the Senate, Geoghegan calculates that 41 senators representing about 10 percent of the population can block a bill favored by 60 senators representing about 90 percent of the population. A 90 percent majority in favor still doesn't guarantee that a law can be passed! OK, so we'll get rid of the filibuster. Given the practical difficulties of abolishing the Senate, that's a respectable fallback position. But even if the filibuster were scuttled, Geoghegan figures, 50 senators representing the 25 smallest states, and hence a mere 16 percent of the population, could still block passage of a bill favored by the other 84 percent of the population. (Assuming, of course, the tie-breaking vice president abstained or went along with the naysayers; with 50 senators, the vice president wouldn't be a factor.) Similarly, he points out, 51 senators representing "16 percent and a bit more" could pass any bill they wished, even if 84 percent of the population opposed it. (Of course, the president, who has veto power, would have to favor the bill, too.) Howie Hawkins, a Green Party USA candidate for Congress in New York, has slightly different numbers--the way he's figured it, 20 percent of the population, acting through its senators, can block legislation favored by 80 percent of the population--but the point remains the same.

Chatterbox isn't sure he would favor what the Green Party USA proposes in place of the Senate--an elaborate system whereby U.S. representatives would be elected half by regions and half at large, with voters also indicating first, second, and third choices on their ballots. It might be that Chatterbox would want to kill off the Senate but leave the House as is. But the basic idea of a unicameral legislature sounds peachy. In addition to being more democratic, it would also be loads more efficient. No conference committees! No duplicative hearings! And think of the office space you'd save on Capitol Hill! Chatterbox has previously wondered why Great Britain would risk the joys of virtual unicameralism by reforming (and thereby possibly strengthening) its upper body, the House of Lords. Why not just ditch the House of Lords altogether? For those who seek an example closer to home, Nebraska, the only state in the United States that has a unicameral legislature, can hardly be described as a hotbed of radicalism. Jesse Ventura wants the same thing in Minnesota. Why can't we have one in Washington, too?

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