Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Small State, Big State; Red State, Blue State?

I wanted to quote Alec McGillis's excellent article on the misunderstood history and modern problems of the Senate. The problem is I can't decide which part to quote.

There's the bit where McGillis explains that the structure of the Senate, so often considered the child of the Founding Fathers' infinite wisdom, is in fact "as much a product of bare-knuckled, self-interested politics as last week's fight over military earmarks." That's an important point.

So too is the section where he quotes Donald Ritchie, the Senate's official historian, explaining that "the authors of the Constitution really thought the House would be the driving engine, and the Senate would just be the senior group that would perfect legislation that came up from the House." Given how often the Senate's current role is defended on grounds of original intent, it's crucial to understand that the Founders actually meant for the more representative body to be the more powerful of the two chambers.

It's also worth remembering that the Founders lived a really long time ago, and could no more conceive of the ramifications of their every action than I can confidently predict the top program on NBC 100 years from now. McGillis quotes Ritchie again, who says that the Founders "would have a hard time imagining how big the country got," and probably didn't understand the level of inequality they were building into the system. When the Senate was created, Virginia, the largest state, was 12 times the size of Delaware. Today, California is 70 times larger than Wyoming.

There's a lot of good stuff in there. You should just read it yourself. What I did want to do, however, was add a quick graph. There is a tendency for people to assume arguments about the structure of the Senate are actually disguised efforts to give one party or the other firmer control of the Senate. To test that, following graph charts the relative conservatism of a senator -- as measured by Jeff Lewis and Keith Poole's data -- against the size of their state. The most conservative senator is 1, the second-most conservative senator 2, and so on. The largest state is 1, while the smallest state is 50. So if the most liberal senator came from the largest state, he'd be 100 on the Y axis and 1 on the X axis, which would put him at the top-left.

I keyed in those numbers for every member of the Senate and put the results into a scatterplot. It's a mess:


There's no strong correlation between small states and Republicans or big states and Democrats. To understand this another way, the House of Representatives is vastly more, well, representative of the nation than is the Senate. Currently, Democrats control 59 percent of the body's seats. That's actually a smidge less than the 60 percent they wield in the Senate.

All of which is to say that the argument about the way that the Senate magnifies the influence of small states is actually an argument about the way the Senate magnifies the influence of small states. It's not a stealth attempt at changing partisan control or winning a few extra seats. The question here is about majority rule, whether that majority is conservative or liberal.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 10, 2009; 10:41 AM ET
Categories:  Congress  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: First Time as Tragedy, Second Time as Tragedy
Next: 'Funny People'


"It's not a stealth attempt at changing partisan control or winning a few extra seats."

Except that the only people who ever argue about small-state representation are the people who are being stymied by small-state senators. It's like the filibuster; the party that's out of power always loves it, and the party that's in power criticizes it.

Posted by: tomtildrum | August 10, 2009 10:59 AM | Report abuse

I beg to differ with both you and Mr. McGillis. The Founders were no more united in their vision of how the U.S. government should function than our current politicians are about health care reform. Some "founding fathers" were interested in protecting the power of the states and viewed the Senate as similar in nature to the legislative body established in the failed Articles of Confederation. They would view the current Senate as not nearly powerful enough, and would strongly criticize the idea that senators should be directly elected.

The structure of our Constitution (its inefficiency, lack of specificity, and multiple, overlapping responsibilities) is a product of the deep divisions between our founders. The solution, represented by the Connecticut Compromise, was hardly ideal to either side, but that's what made it a compromise. The only thing that would surprise the founders about our current situation is that the states that most opposed unicameral, proportional representation (New Jersey) are now the states that suffer the most from the current system (history if full of little ironies).

Posted by: besmit02 | August 10, 2009 11:34 AM | Report abuse

Six senators hijacking health reform bill is one problem. The other problem is Wyden-Benett bill cannot come to the floor for voting and President Obama can simply reject it by saying 'it is radical' without any political engagement whatsoever.

Keep 2 things in mind:
- As your colleague Perelstein said - if we fail to do any serious health reform, we know it is a startling failure of our political system; and
- as Frank Rich said in NYT - everyone knows that the game is rigged in USA (we are back to bankers getting Billion dollar bonuses with no backup for risks whatsoever).

So with that background, these bright minds in Senate need to figure out why is their chamber so nauseating and detrimental to America's longer term success. Remember that Senate failed:
- to stop Iraq war or
- budget busting Medicare drug extension.
So much for it's far sightedness. It does not matter to rattle many success, what matters is did it stop disasters.

We all remember Soviet Union. Every day we see glee of Conservatives in claiming that how Chinese rigid political system will bring China's end. We all see how the resistance is shaping in Iran.

Question is with such unresponsive Senate; is this Union far away from facing same fate? Does not seem so.

Changing color of the White House occupant is only one step. But our problems with this Union are far too deep seated with no honesty even to acknowledge these structural problems; leave aside addressing those.

Posted by: umesh409 | August 10, 2009 11:41 AM | Report abuse

We should go back to the original constitution and have the senators appointed by the states. That way, states get representation.
Some states are way too big - and the senators don't care about representing the people - they don't have to really answer to them, as they can't seriously - and the people have representation via the House. House districts are typically smaller, so you would be able to speak with your rep.
Repeal the amendment saying the 'people' elect their senators...

Posted by: atlmom1234 | August 10, 2009 12:47 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, what is your opinion on how or if the 17th Amendment distorted the founder's original intentions? I've seen the argument made that part of the problem is that the Senate is now running on an election cycle--that is, they have to be raising re-election funds like everybody else, and it's much more economical and easy to buy a small-state senator than any other government official; hence, these senators become the senators you can count on to block important legislation in favor of business interests.

Do you think a repeal of the 17th might be a way to restore the Senate to the way it was originally envisioned?

Posted by: Salvo | August 10, 2009 12:54 PM | Report abuse

The authors of the Constitution deeply distrusted federal power. Remember states rights? In order to get the Constitution passed, they had to make it difficult for the federal government to function. This would preserve power to the states.

The structure of the Senate is a manifestation of this battle, which has existed as long as we've been a country.

The difficulty in getting things done is not a bug, it's a key feature.

Posted by: fuse | August 10, 2009 1:50 PM | Report abuse

Fuse says above "The difficulty in getting things done is not a bug, it's a key feature." We need only look to California to see how quickly simple majoritarianism -- mob rule -- can leave a government bankrupt and remove rights folks thought they had.

In 1789, a bunch of folks offered the Congressional Appointment Resolution, which is the last element of the original Bill of Rights which hasn't yet been ratified. That resolution also makes for some interesting math.

Posted by: rmgregory | August 10, 2009 3:20 PM | Report abuse

States do not print Dollars, that is done by Feds. So let us not have any illusions that you can get away with minimal Fed in 21st century.

So it seems 'fuse' does not see the dangers of broken Senate.

Posted by: umesh409 | August 10, 2009 3:28 PM | Report abuse

I don't think it's small states vs. big states. It's dense populations vs. rural populations. I was going to make a graph to counter ezra but i dont have a blog to respond with.

If you look at population density though it becomes very clear: the conservative democrats are largely from states with below average density, and the liberal republicans are from states with above average density.

Posted by: dugmartsch | August 10, 2009 3:59 PM | Report abuse

Okay well with all this talk you need to change one thing or take it into account.

Article V of the U.S. Consitution states "... ; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate."

So any complaints and ANY AND ALL attempts to alter the "equal Sufferage" in the Senate. Is by definition an illegal amendment to the Constitution.

Simply put. To alter the fact that Montana has as many Senators as California, you either must get Montana to agree ... or it is actually an illegal amendment.

There are disagreements as to whether this also affects the electoral College. Most say no ( it is a separate clause and the electoral college is NOT in the Senate ) some say yes, by altering the system to a "popular" vote you have in effect reduced the sufferage powers of a State's senators.

I think the latter is weak. Probably has a reasonable challenge, but should lose.

The first though is no doubt. You can NOT remove the Senate, or alter the proportional representation of states in the Senate, without every single state agreeing. Any one can veto it. And it cannot be done by amendment. ( It is banned )
You have to totally scrap the Constitution.
Good luck on that one.

Posted by: chromenhawk | August 10, 2009 5:30 PM | Report abuse

Re: original intent
Yes, the Founders ended up accepting an equal suffrage Senate, but no major founding father favored it. Hamilton said equal suffrage "shocks too much the ideas of justice and every human feeling." When the small states, see Gunning Beford Jr of DE who threatened that Delaware would find a foreign ally, admitted they were acting out of self-interest, Madison asked why the states should agree to something "confessedly unjust."

So, anyone who talks about the Founders' intent has to grapple with the fact that the true fathers of equal suffrage were obscure borderline treasonous dolts like Gunning Bedford Jr, and not the founders we really esteem.

Re: Increasing malapportionment

Today 16% of the nation elects half the Senate, in 1789 33% of the nation did. Malapportionment is only increasing!

Re: Consequences

No one has written about block grants. In block grants 0.5% (usually) of the money is distributed out on an equal basis by state, and only then distributed by population. As a result the tiniest states get much more than their fair share and the largest states are shortchanged.

The small state Senators also dominate Appropriations.

The best book on the Senate's creation and the consequences of malapportionment is Lee & Oppenheimer's "Sizing Up the Senate: The Unequal Consequences of Equal Representation."

Posted by: Jeffrey79 | August 11, 2009 11:15 AM | Report abuse

In so many ways, the philosophical basis of our constitution (limited government, separation of powers, one person / one vote, checks and balances) is epitomized by the Framers' original formulation of the Senate. The 17th Amendment, which did critical damage to all four of these principles, is exactly what the Framer's were trying to prevent, and should be repealed:

Posted by: EmpFab | August 11, 2009 12:29 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company