Saturday, November 3, 2018

Should the US Senate be changed?

In the wake of the 2016 Presidential election and Trump's appointment of not one but two justices to the Supreme Court some people are arguing that the Senate and Electoral College have outlived their usefulness if indeed they ever had utility and should be utterly transformed if not eliminated.

Usually this takes the form of a resident of a high population state which normally tilts Democratic (think New York, California) scornfully bringing up a low population state which usually tilts Republican (think Wyoming, South Dakota, Montana) and arguing that it's not fair that the residents of the high population and often richer state have the same Senate representation as those dumb rubes in the low population state. Inevitably the person making this argument will reference the fact that Clinton won the popular vote in the 2016 Presidential election and thus conclude we need to change our political system to give more power to the majority.

We have a political system that has separated powers between the federal government and the states and further split power among separate elements of the federal government and placed limits on what the federal government can do. The idea was and is that the best protection against tyranny would be that no one element of government could grab all the power to itself. Some would argue that this hasn't worked. They would say that since at least the end of WW2 the power and authority of the Federal government has grown into the Leviathan we see today. But people differ on whether this is a good or bad thing. Some people think that they are components of an emerging permanent majority. So they might want the Federal government to have all the power it needs and then some. Some people want to crush their enemies, drive them before them, and smile at the lamentations of their women. Remaking the Senate into an institution that better reflects majority rule would be an important step in that process.

There are a few problems with this. Actually there are more than a few but as my Day Job supervisor sits next to me and checks on me more than I like I will only mention a couple. The country's political system is designed, as mentioned, to split and limit federal power. The Senate does this by representing the states, not the people. The House is the chamber which represents the people. It's in the House where states like California or New York could throw their weight around if they desired. Given that all federal spending must start in and be approved by the House, a determined House majority could shut down the government or refuse to fund executive branch actions/agencies which it disapproves. It could turn the Senate into a useless debating body. That most representatives of either major party lack the spine to reign in the executive branch or stand up to the Senate is well, unfortunate. But it's not an argument for making the Senate more like the House.

The second problem is that there is an excellent argument that equal representation in the Senate can't be changed, even by Amendment. Article V of the Constitution reads as follows: (emphasis mine)

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose amendments to this Constitution, or, on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments, which, in either case, shall be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the legislatures of three fourths of the several states, or by conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other mode of ratification may be proposed by the Congress; provided that no amendment which may be made prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any manner affect the first and fourth clauses in the ninth section of the first article; and that no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.

Get that? There is no constitutional method by which to give New York more votes in the Senate than Wyoming, unless Wyoming agrees. And Wyoming and other states with low populations would likely never agree to losing equal representation in the Senate. And it doesn't matter how many states think that Wyoming shouldn't have an equal voice. Wyoming can give the entire country the Bronx Cheer on that point. And even if Wyoming agreed to allow California to have more votes in the Senate, as long as Montana doesn't agree, California can't get more Senate votes. So complaints growing from resentment that low population states get an equal say in the Senate are useless. However, there are other ways for disgruntled liberals to change the electoral college outcomes and Senate judicial confirmation votes more to their liking. 

The simplest way is to move. If more people from such safe liberal states as New York or California decamp to places like Wyoming, Montana, North and South Dakota, Georgia, etc then they can, assuming they don't change their political outlook in response to their new home, quite easily outvote the people they don't like and change the state's Senate representation. And given the very low populations of the aforementioned states it wouldn't even take too many people moving there to make big changes. Conservatives in such states might scream bloody murder but such a plan would be completely legal. It would also be much easier and quicker to accomplish than attempting to convince smaller states to give up equal voting rights in the Senate.
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