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.
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