Perhaps the most galling fact about Ben Nelson's extra-special deal to give Nebraska free money was that it wasn't, as people keep saying, evidence that the system is broken. That particular Kodak moment was evidence that the system is working exactly as designed. After all, what use is it to divvy the Senate up by states rather than people or land or cows if the senators themselves aren't supposed to enrich their state at the expense of the country?
So long as we apportion the Senate by states, we will have senators working to get the best deal for their state. That was sort of the point. There's a tendency to believe the features of our government the product of wise and lengthy deliberation, but the design of the Senate is more of a Cornhusker Kickback than anything else: It was a compromise to entice small states into the union, as they feared they'd lose their influence when they united with the other states. Because the fact of the union was more important than the design of the union, the deal went through. But what if it had gone differently? Annie Lowrey dares to dream:
Imagine a chamber in which senators were elected by different income brackets -- with two senators representing the poorest 2 percent of the electorate, two senators representing the richest 2 percent and so on.
Based on Census Bureau data, five senators would represent Americans earning between $100,000 and $1 million individually per year, with a single senator working on behalf of the millionaires (technically, it would be two-tenths of a senator). Eight senators would represent Americans with no income. Sixteen would represent Americans who make less than $10,000 a year, an amount well below the federal poverty line for families. The bulk of the senators would work on behalf of the middle class, with 34 representing Americans making $30,000 to $80,000 per year.
Imagine trying to convince someone -- Michael Bloomberg, perhaps? -- to be the lonely senator representing the richest percentile. And what if the senators were apportioned according to jobs figures? This year, the unemployed would have gained two seats. Think of the deals that would be made to attract that bloc!
She also runs the numbers for a Senate based off age and a Senate based off education. The apportionment of senators, and the likely coalitions and deals they would create, are fascinating. "A senator vying for the $60,000 bracket -- filled with working parents concerned with putting children through school -- might need to promise Pell Grant reform and improved school lunches," Lowrey predicts. "One can imagine a coalition of senators for the elderly and senators for 20-somethings working to loosen federal laws around medical marijuana."
The point isn't that transforming the Senate along these lines would be a good thing, much less that it would be possible to do. It's to highlight that the Senate is an arbitrary and weird institution, and that mean it produce arbitrary and weird results. Nelson was just doing his job.
Photo credit: AP Photo/Harry Hamburg.
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