All quiet on the Western front

A strained Senate needs help, but the aid has been embargoed
“Great is the power of habit,” Cicero told us, “it teaches us to bear fatigue and to despise wounds and pain.”  Cicero was, of course, a Roman senator, dead for some time now.  However, with a little imagination, he could be thought to be talking about the American Senate of today, which, like any good political institution, is fatigued, wounded, in pain, and, mostly through habit, refusing to do anything about it.

It is written into Article One of the US Constitution (section three, clause one, if anyone is interested) that “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each state”, the idea being that this was the easiest way to ensure that none of the states felt left out.  However, when these binding building blocks were laid down, the ratio (in terms of population) of the largest state to the smallest was 12:1; yet today California is home to 70 times the population of Wyoming.  A senate majority can be commanded by just 15 per cent of the American people, which presumably leaves a few more people out than the founding fathers intended.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t only sound a bit wrong; it’s also at the root of many an American woe.

For an ‘upper chamber’, the US Senate is strangely powerful.  Unlike its counterparts in, for example, Germany, Australia and, to an increasing degree, the UK, where the lower house can generally overrule its loftier brethren, the US Senate has an in effect equal role in the legislature to the House of Representatives, and in some crucial areas it is actually more important.

The bias in favour of the small states can, therefore, have a distinct impact on public policy across America.  This is especially evident when one considers that the larger states—California, Texas, Florida—are home to the biggest populations of ethnic minorities, while the smaller states—Wyoming, the two Dakotas, Montana, Vermont etc—are among the least ethnically diverse places in the US.  Balanced senatorial judgments on more contentious issues thus pop up about as often as black people get elected to the upper house (five in its history, stat fans).

Population projections suggest that the problem is going to continue to get worse, as more American citizens make the move to the big cities.  Some studies have shown that by 2050, members of the senate who represent just 5 per cent of the population might be able to wield majority power.

Despite the obvious problems that this malapportionment poses, the issue is barely being debated, let alone acted upon.

This is not surprising.  Anyone perceptive of the problem is also aware that solving it is almost impossible.  Because equal seats per state is etched so evidently into the Constitution, changing it requires the support of two-thirds of the Senate and three-quarters of State legislatures, meaning that the small states can (and would) easily veto any plans to curb their influence.

It is not just a question of little against large, either.  Because the bias works in favour of the GOP, such that they hold 55 of the 100 Senate seats despite an amalgamated deficit in terms of the popular vote, party politics is firmly in play too. In this case, that means gerrymandering.  And in the US, gerrymandering is positively gladiatorial, with legal legionnaires at loggerheads and blood-soaked ticker tape covering the battlefield.  It is also worth remembering that the US Senate was the one chosen as a model by Robert Mugabe when creating his own skewed state.

E pluribus unum?

Another problem is that of the (somewhat tacitly) touted solutions, such as electing both senators from each state at the same time, none can claim to be likely to usher in anything much more than a mess.

New systems possess unknown devils and awaken dormant disputes, which populaces throughout history have tended to meet with disapproval.  The status quo may be bad, but at least it’s relatively calm.  Or, as Cicero put it, “An unjust peace is better than a just war.”

After the November elections, the disproportionality of the Senate may be clearer still, but that doesn’t mean the solution will be too.

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