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Reminder: The Senate Hates Democracy

One thing that frequently gets lost in the political debate is the difference between policies that are unpopular -- or at least controversial -- among the public and policies that are unpopular among a certain bloc of legislators. The public plan is a good example here: The latest polling suggest it's popular with 76 percent of Americans. But it's incredibly unpopular with 40 Republican senators and viewed skeptically by at least a handful of Democrats.

Given that legislation is passed atop votes rather than polls, it's not crazy for legislators to take votes seriously. But the preferences of legislators are not a natural stand-in for the preferences of the public. That's particularly true in the Senate, where California's Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer represent 36 million people whose opinions trend left, and have exactly the same number of votes as Wyoming's Mike Enzi and John Barrasso, who represent 532,668 people whose opinions trend right.

Or take the "Coalition of the Willing" that Max Baucus, the senior senator from Montana, has formed to handle health reform. The first meeting was attended by Baucus, Iowa's Chuck Grassley, New Mexico's Jeff Bingaman, North Dakota's Kent Conrad, Utah's Orrin Hatch, Maine's Olympia Snow, and Wyoming's Mike Enzi. As Harold Pollack, a professor of public health at the University of Chicago e-mails, "these 7 states have a combined population of 11.18 million, markedly less than greater LA. They include zero major metropolitan areas. Yet they may be correct in asserting that they are positioned to make or break what can get through the Senate."

The Senate is very important. But it everyone would be better off if people better understood that it is resolutely, aggressively, anti-democratic.

By Ezra Klein  |  June 19, 2009; 11:02 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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Comments

Ezra: there's been some talk here and there on the 'sphere (a couple of people have mentioned it on Yglesias's blog, for instance) about using the conference committee process as a means of getting a good, solid, progressive healthcare bill to the president's desk. Any thoughts? Is this a viable strategy?

Posted by: Jasper99 | June 19, 2009 11:23 AM | Report abuse

Well that's a depressing post.

Posted by: SteveCA1 | June 19, 2009 11:43 AM | Report abuse

In all of your caterwalling, let's all remember that our government is a representative REPUBLIC, and you wouldn't have it any other way. While it may be inconvenient for you on this issue, there are plenty of issues that you would not get to pass if the people had their say.

Posted by: ElViajero1 | June 19, 2009 11:46 AM | Report abuse

In all of your caterwalling, let's all remember that our government is a representative REPUBLIC, and you wouldn't have it any other way. While it may be inconvenient for you on this issue, there are plenty of issues that you would not get to pass if the people had their say.

Posted by: ElViajero1 | June 19, 2009 11:46 AM | Report abuse

step one eliminate the filibuster once and for all. It is evil. For the most of its history it was used mainly as a tool to stop anti-lynching laws and civil rights.

Its time to return the Senate to what the founding fathers designed. They did not want their to be a filibuster

Posted by: JonWa | June 19, 2009 11:53 AM | Report abuse

In fairness the Senate does fairly evenly represent land mass. So at least all acres are created more or less equal.

And though the Senate is decidedly undemocratic where people rather than acres are concerned, in theory the House makes up for this.

But in practice all of Congress represents corporate interests more than the people's. This has more to do with why health reform and climate change legislation will get watered down to the point of complete ineffectiveness.

Posted by: jeirvine | June 19, 2009 12:02 PM | Report abuse

If only this country were governed as well as Los Angeles.

Posted by: dawsnville | June 19, 2009 12:13 PM | Report abuse

Even if George Washington or Thomas Jefferson appears tomorrow in Congress, there is no way in the world Senate structure would change from the current undemocratic representation. Generally, the way such deeply entrenched political institutions fare is ‘to fade away’. Some decades in future, this undemocratic structure of Senate will be too much of a hindrance to people and then they will simply by-pass it. Senators would rather let make their own institution irrelevant than make any useful changes. Just consider the fast paced legislative agenda of Obama Administration which is ‘too fast’ for the Senate to execute. There is simply no ‘political space’ to even start any debate on these Senate structure reforms.

Many experts have weighed on this issue and I am sure many Politics Professor would have elegant solutions to this address this ‘representative imbalance’. One simple way could be let States continue to send 2 senators, but the vote weight will be proportional to population represented. So if a New Hampshire Senator is 1 weight, California Senator could be 40. At least folks can start keep track of such ‘voter representation tallies’ to start with just to see how legislation falls. As these representation scores become more prevalent, people will start seeing more political heft behind certain policies.

But any ways, I am running ahead. Point is Senate needs to be reformed, but there does not seem to be any hope in the ‘hope’ reign of President Obama.

Posted by: umesh409 | June 19, 2009 12:17 PM | Report abuse

The way to make the Senate more democratic is for democrats to grow a pair, a spine, and some party discipline and use their historic majority to actually get something done on health care reform, not just health insurance reform. We hold 59 (soon to be 60) seats, along with the island of republican moderation known as Maine. The democratic fish stinks from the head with Harry Reid unwilling to play hardball with the Repiglicans and the corporate wing of his own caucus. Time for a new leader.

Posted by: srw3 | June 19, 2009 12:23 PM | Report abuse

The structure of the Senate is bad enough, but the filibuster compounds the problem spectacularly. Theoretically, in a straight yes or no vote, representatives for less than 34 million people can kill a piece of legislation, in a country with a population of over 300 million.

In a perfect world, Obama's first legislative priority should have been finding a way to kill the filibuster. In fact, if the mid-terms are favorable to the Dems, I'm not sure he shouldn't just go after it anyway, because if he were successful, he could spend the rest of his term coasting through some of the most progressive legislation in US history. Exactly how much of our future are we sacrificing as a consequence of a absurdly counterintuitive piece of parliamentary procedure? It makes me sick.

Posted by: WHSTCL | June 19, 2009 12:30 PM | Report abuse

dawsnville,

The only difference between Los Angeles and the federal government is the federal government can print money.

Posted by: SteveCA1 | June 19, 2009 12:37 PM | Report abuse

"In fairness the Senate does fairly evenly represent land mass"

This is because Rhode Island is the same size (in acres) as Texas.

More to the point, Baucus ran a series of Town Hall meetings all across MT. They all overwhelmingly supported Medicare for All. So it really doesn't have anything to do with small pop states v large pop states. It simply means that our Senators do not represent their states.

I propose we make it transparent. Let's have a Senator for United Health Care, a Senator for Halliburton, A Senator for Exxon, and so on.

Posted by: lensch | June 19, 2009 1:26 PM | Report abuse

"but the vote weight will be proportional to population represented. So if a New Hampshire Senator is 1 weight, California Senator could be 40. At least folks can start keep track of such ‘voter representation tallies’ to start with just to see how legislation falls. As these representation scores become more prevalent, people will start seeing more political heft behind certain policies."

I like this idea. It'd also be cool to track congressional votes on issues vs State polling in issues. Maybe Nate Silver could set up an algorithm to calculate Conngress members most out of touch with their constituents.

Posted by: jeirvine | June 19, 2009 2:22 PM | Report abuse

Darn that pesky Constitution and its rules, Ezra. Play us all a mournful dirge on your tiny little violin, and shower us all with a rain of progressive little teardrops.

It's called the Great Compromise, people. Go read about it. You may not like how the Senate is run, but I bet you'd enjoy still living under the Articles of Confederation even less.

Posted by: aphistis | June 19, 2009 3:05 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for this Ezra. Way to go.

Posted by: MrGoodKnight | June 19, 2009 7:55 PM | Report abuse

Senate Apologizes for 220 Years of Being Undemocratic
http://satiricalpolitical.com/?p=7510

Posted by: dondavis41 | June 20, 2009 1:05 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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