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Invisible Senates

nelsonsnow.jpgPerhaps 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.

By Ezra Klein  |  February 8, 2010; 7:03 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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You put something on a base--that's what "base" means. Don't say "based off."

Posted by: williameburns | February 8, 2010 7:45 AM | Report abuse

Nelson wasn't trying to "enrich" his state. He was trying to get his state excluded a costly provision of the bill. Nelson agreed to support the bill for everyone else as long as his state got a different bill.

Posted by: whoisjohngaltcom | February 8, 2010 7:46 AM | Report abuse

If the Senate was "working," Nelson would have used his position to oppose the bill as too expensive for Nebraska, or to hold out for changes to the bill that would make it more affordable for everyone -- not just for his own state.

It would have been "politics as usual" if Nelson had simply held out for farm subsidies or some other Nebraska-oriented pork. But Nelson's position here clearly shows that he was opposed to the bill in the form that would have applied to everyone else.

Posted by: whoisjohngaltcom | February 8, 2010 7:52 AM | Report abuse

A big influence is getting (re)elected. I remember after the "read-my-lips" thing, G. H. W. Bush told a talking head he said it because he was campaigning. The head asked back accusingly just what Bush would do to get elected, Bush stated, and I quote, "ANYTHING".

As far as changing the Senate; it will take a revolution. They are entrenched and hold the reigns. After Watergate when encumbent lawmakers were turned out and fresh faces ensued, the freshmen had no power and didn't know the rules so the middle class who new what was going on but hadn't acceeded to power just moved up and it was the same old thing

As bad as things are, the Nomenclatura are back to their same old unsustainable antics. It is class struggle pure and simple. It will end in sorrow for many.

Posted by: BertEisenstein | February 8, 2010 8:13 AM | Report abuse

Well, if you're going to run the senate in some way proportionately, there's a simple fix for the filibuster problem: for cloture votes, weight Senators' votes by the state population. With that system, you'd only need 43 of the current senators in the Democratic caucus to break a filibuster (a few more if you want to ignore Lieberman's antics).

Posted by: ShermanDorn | February 8, 2010 8:50 AM | Report abuse

Gee, maybe you can just chuck the whole Constitution thingy right out the window if that's what it takes to get your agenda rammed down the throats of an unwilling public. Once you get that pesky Senate stacked to suit, you can start on the Supreme Court.

Posted by: bgmma50 | February 8, 2010 9:45 AM | Report abuse


God do I hate grammar police - especially when they dont know secondary definitions.


A position or thing that is a base for something is one from which that thing can be developed or achieved.
Synonym basis; foundation

Posted by: ctown1 | February 8, 2010 10:23 AM | Report abuse

bgmamma50, did you not understand that Ezra wasn't endorsing those different ways of structuring the Senate? He was merely pointing out that the way it's done now is just as arbitrary as the other ways he discussed and that different configurations would produce interesting results. Furthermore, he was arguing that based on the current design of the body that Nelson's actions are explainable. That doesn't make them good, but you can understand them as a negative outcome of the way the system is set up.

Posted by: MosBen | February 8, 2010 10:30 AM | Report abuse

I concur with John Galt. The big problem with the Ben Nelson deal, and the Louisiana Purchase, and the union exemption, is that these deals were specifically about either exempting folks from or paying for the increased expense of HCR. It's one thing to trade a vote on a bill for some more road projects, quite another to say that I'll vote for this legislation to apply to everybody else, just so long as it doesn't apply to me.

That really makes the legislation look atrocious. It seems like an acknowledgement by everybody involved that the legislation is expensive and oppressive, so Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieu need to have everybody else pay for their state's participation.

I expect it makes another senators and congress members think they are getting a raw deal. Why am I voting for this legislation and getting nothing for my state--thus obligating my state to pay for the special deals Mary Landrieu and Ben Nelson got? How is that going to make me look come election time?

Just a bad strategy all around. The fact that it seems to be collapsing might be an indication that the Senate is working, though. When you try to buy legislation by arbitrarily exempting certain politician's states and certain political and lobby groups from the legislation, the legislation fails, even with a supposed super-majority.

So I end up agreeing with Ezra. The Senate is working. They tried to have their cake and eat it too, and they found out they couldn't do it. If the sprinkler system comes on when there is a fire, it means the sprinkler is working just fine. Go find out what started the fire--that's where the real problem is.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | February 8, 2010 10:31 AM | Report abuse

Yes, MosBen, I understand that Ezra gave the requisite disclaimer that it is unfortunately necessary to accept that the Constitution apportions representation by state before daring to dream otherwise. :)

Posted by: bgmma50 | February 8, 2010 11:22 AM | Report abuse

Kevin_Willis, don't forget about the unions. Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieu weren't the only Democrats trying to escape the consequences of their own handiwork.

Posted by: bgmma50 | February 8, 2010 11:25 AM | Report abuse

Wouldn't be fairer to have a Senate based off income taxes paid? After all the whole system is supported by taxes. Forty senators would represent top 1% of taxpayers, thirty one senator would represent next 9%, and twenty six senators would represent next 40%. Bottom 50% would be represented by three senators.

Posted by: RedDwarf | February 8, 2010 12:15 PM | Report abuse

"Gee, maybe you can just chuck the whole Constitution thingy right out the window if that's what it takes to get your agenda rammed down the throats of an unwilling public. Once you get that pesky Senate stacked to suit, you can start on the Supreme Court."

Yes. That was the Bush/Cheney strategy. Although it worked well for them, the Democrats are trying a different approach.

Posted by: Patrick_M | February 8, 2010 9:12 PM | Report abuse

"That was the Bush/Cheney strategy."

As far as I know, the Senate is still apportioned just the way the Constitution requires.

Posted by: bgmma50 | February 9, 2010 1:28 AM | Report abuse

"But Nelson's position here clearly shows that he was opposed to the bill in the form that would have applied to everyone else."

Of course, extreme right wingers like John "Rand-roid" Galt now must concoct fairy tale logic justifying the universally reviled "Cornhusker Kickback" deal, which I hope everyone has not forgotten was the hypocritical monetary resolution to Senator Nelson's professed pro-life objections to the Senate HCR bill.

Why must they do that? Simple... Republican Richard Shelby has been extorting moving any nominations forward in exchange for Alabama pork, so these kind of things are noble, not, I say nobke, I say NOT, sleazy at all.

When truth becomes inconvenient, go with fiction!

Fortunately for the people, both Nelson and Shelby have retracted their demands in the sunshine of publicity that both outrages received.

Posted by: Patrick_M | February 9, 2010 3:56 AM | Report abuse

It would not matter how you format the congress,as long as industrial lobbies continue to buy our senators and representatives too follow their agendas.
Take for example the issue of medical marijuana,14 states and the US department of Justice recognize marijuana as a medicine and our legislators and the ONDCP still list marijuana as a schedule 1 drug,having no medical applications.
For the ONDCP,it is a direct conflict of interest because over 80% of their 15 billion dollar budget relies on marijuana as justification of that budget.
For the congress,they are ignoring the situation and laughing it off,supporting the pharmaceutical companies,
industrialized prison industry
and law enforcement unions agendas of keeping marijuana illegal.
The pharmaceutical industries because they lose millions just in sleeping pills sales,who would buy sleeping pills with possible death as a side effect,when you can grow your own sleeping pills in your yard and it has no mortality ever attributed to it and used by mankind for centuries.
The industrial prisons because they are presently full,with over 1/2 on non-violent drug charges,which are a lot easier to control and manage than murderers and robbers.
The law enforcement unions,because they receive millions of dollars from the ONDCP
and the majority of it is for enforcing marijuana laws.

Posted by: claygooding | February 11, 2010 3:57 PM | Report abuse

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