A Case for Dissolving the Senate

The Senate was originally envisioned as the “cooling saucer” (an expression often attributed to James Madison) in our legislative system.  Its effectiveness has, however, deteriorated over time and we would be better served by dissolving it all together or reforming its makeup at the very least.

The founding architects of our system of government intended for the Senate to help us avoid hasty and fickle decisions of two varieties.  The first kind arises from the inflamed passions of the public.  Public anger and exuberance can lead to the election of or undue pressure on representatives in the House.  In the case of the former, these elected officials may hold staunch radical beliefs which will persist after the fervor of their constituents has allayed.  The concern with the latter was mostly due to the worry that House representatives would succumb to impetuous demands in the interest of self-preservation, what with elections always seemingly looming for them.  To avoid these pitfalls, a Senate with longer terms appointed by state legislatures was created.  The rationale for using state legislatures to appoint them was that these senators would be removed from the re-election pressures of the House.  However, they would be subject to reaffirmation by the state legislatures.  This was also considered a safeguard against corruption as it would take a pervasive corruptive influence in several state legislatures to exert enough influence over the Senate as a whole to get a majority vote.  In all likelihood, it was also a hope of the founders that the state legislators’ intimate knowledge of our political machinery would make them less susceptible to the sort of empty rhetoric aimed at stirring emotions without committing to a plan of action: selling hope, change, ideology, or anti-opposition without specifying a means to an end.  The desired result was the appointment of senators knowledgeable on the plethora of tools and theories to help their fellow countrymen realize their visions or to dissuade them from pursing a path of folly.  After all, who would know better than a fellow politician who was qualified for political office?  If the layperson were to listen to the theories of a slew of physicists, he/she might deem them all equally convincing or use criteria unrelated to the scientific merit of those theories to judge their importance.  On the other hand, the physicists themselves would probably be able to pick out the most praiseworthy members and theories.  Such was part of the rationale to have state legislators appoint members to the federal Senate.  In 1913, the 17th Amendment formally put an end to the appointment of senators, although several states had already been employing elections.  You won’t find an argument from me against this change, but it does bring some of the concerns of the past back into question.  Do the senators have enough of a cushion between election cycles to operate without reelection concerns foremost in their minds?  Are senators at the federal level not subject to many of the same corruptive elements as their peers in the House?  Does the public suffer from bouts of irrational zeal infrequently enough to make senators less susceptible to them or are they frequent enough that they are as subject to them as their peers on the other side?  Are senators any wiser or more qualified than members of the House?

The other variety of hasty decisions that were of concern stem from the short terms served by House representatives.  Even if they are determined to make the right decisions for their constituents regardless of short-term popularity, they might feel pressure to make the most of their time in case they are defeated in the next race.  This could manifest itself in a good way, but it could also make House representatives overzealous to make their mark.  While this was a legitimate concern, it has been trumped by bigger threats to our legislative system that have resulted in congressional stagnation.  In the past couple of decades, the rate of incumbent reelection has been very high, often over 90% (http://www.opensecrets.org/bigpicture/reelect.php?cycle=2010).  Even the relatively large swing of 63 House seats in the 2010 midterm elections accounts for only 14.5% of the seats.  This is the highest turnover since 1948 and it took some deep dissatisfaction with a slow recovery to the worst economic situation since the Great Depression and a president that, for reasons which I won’t get into, has been reviled by a significant portion of the population before he had ever set foot in office.  The current electoral system that favors a two-party system, our natural tendencies to concentrate our voting power in one area by creating communities from similar cultures and with similar values, and the gerrymandering that is enabled by the previous two aspects have conspired to make it difficult in many districts for a candidate from the other major party to win.  The incumbents usually have an advantage in campaign financing, political capital, and stakeholders from previous legislating and appropriations.  Often this means that candidates run unopposed, even if their approval rating is not enviable.  Fellow party members are unwilling to cross them for fear of the political repercussions and members of the rival party see it as an expensive proposition with a low probability of success.

The Senate was also supposed to help prevent the more populous states from imposing their will on the least populous states.  The democratic process always has winners and losers though.  Part of the appeal of a democracy is the trust in the majority of the populace to listen to logic and reason and make prudent decisions.  Although the decisions made by our elected representatives may not always be correct, a democracy should provide recourse for the people to rectify those mistakes or replace officials in a timely manner.  If it does not, then that must be addressed.  If you believe there has been an error in judgment, then it is your responsibility to make a convincing case to your community.  If the rest of the populace does not comprehend what is at stake or the evidence at-hand, then it is your responsibility to try to educate them.  If the public is woefully prepared to lend a critical eye to political affairs, then the education system must be improved.  If your opponents have evidence to contradict your assertions, then it is your responsibility to scrutinize it with an open mind.  With a voting process that allows us to vote for the candidates most sympathetic to our values and beliefs without worry of throwing away our vote and an electoral system that is more responsive to constituents’ desires as opposed to requiring them to wait years for the next elections, we have much less to dread of the follies of majority opinion.

Furthermore, as the states have been delineated by natural features that were conveniently located at the time statehoods were being declared by denizens and by arbitrary lines of latitude and longitude when statehoods were declared by the capital, the Senate has become an equally arbitrary repository of legislative power.  In the 1st census in 1790 the most and least populous states were Virginia and Delaware with populations of 747,610 and 59,094, respectively.  Today the most and least populous states are California and Wyoming with respective populations of 38 million and 576,000.  A senator from 1790’s Virginia represented about 12 ½ times the number of people from 1790’s Delaware (this is inclusive of slaves, women, and the landless class who were nonetheless affected by senators’ decisions despite their lack of voting rights).  Compare that to today where a senator from California represents about 66 times the number of people than does a senator from Wyoming.  Yet, each of these senators has an equal vote.

A case can be made that some senators, despite their small constituency, represent a wealth of resources that should not be overlooked.  There, however, is a large gulf here as well.  Alaska has about 663,000 mi2 of terrain, about 572,000 is land.  Rhode Island, on the other hand, has about 1,545 mi2 of terrain, of which about 1,045 is land.  That means that a senator from Alaska influences the consequences to 547 X more land than does a senator in Rhode Island.  In 1790, Georgia was the largest state and it had about 55 ½ X more land than did Rhode Island.  Although the simple presence of land is not a quality indicator of the value of resources, it gives us a bit of an idea of the chasm present in terms of the representation of natural wealth.

To me, the only fair way to represent the American populace and the vast resources at our disposal within our Senate system would be to redraw the state borders accounting for populations, arable land, fresh water availability, and other vital resources.  I suggest redefining districts by setting parameters for the number of people, arable land, and fresh water sources in those areas.  Then, we can define states as clusters of about the same number districts (http://chankyr.com/2013/01/25/new-district-state-borders/).  Another idea worth exploring was proposed by Professor C. Etzel Pearcy of CSU, Los Angeles in the 70s.  He took into account population density, location of cities, lines of transportation, land relief, and the size and shape of states when reducing our 50 states to 38.  He also claimed that 25% of state expenditures were related to fixed costs having to do with the support and maintenance of the state governments themselves.  I do not know if his figures were accurate or whether they still apply, but it would be interesting to investigate whether a reduction in the number of states would result in significant savings.  He also pointed out that border cities, such as Chicago and New York to name a few, have to deal with the bureaucracy of two state governments whenever trying to coordinate large metropolitan projects.  Putting borders away from areas that are densely populated would alleviate some of the headaches for these cities.

In addition, the Senate as a stabilizer has left something to be desired.  It was thought that two bodies would be harder to corrupt than just one.  That is true, and three are harder to corrupt than two, four are harder to corrupt than three, and so on.  However, there is a tradeoff when adding another chamber.  Mainly, that it can slow down the legislative process or, as was the case in the recent standoffs to increase the debt ceiling, can sometimes bring it to a grinding halt.  This slow-down has been purported to provide further opportunity for interested parties to have their say before something becomes law.  I do not see this as having much added value.  Both chambers are composed almost entirely of Republicans and Democrats who generally make the same arguments and vote along party-lines at rates that are generally over 90%(http://projects.washingtonpost.com/congress/113/).  Furthermore, the interests groups and constituencies represented by senators are already accounted for in the House.  Other countries, such as Sweden, have had success with unicameral systems.  If we include all the parties with vested interests in particular pieces of legislation, decisions will not be hastily made, and we will not have so many parallel, redundant arguments in the process.

Another alleged stabilizing feature of the Senate is that it helps to avoid unreasonable decisions made under heightened emotions.  There is probably some truth to that.  Although almost everyone voted into office these days is either Democrat or Republican, there is some range in viewpoints within those parties.  If people let their emotions get the best of them in the short-term, they may vote in high numbers for people on the fringes of either party (of course, if there is a long-term shift in the viewpoints of the mainstream, those politicians wouldn’t be considered outliers for long).  As only a third of the seats are up for reelection in the Senate, it would help to put the brakes on such an emotional train until a movement stood the test of time.  As stated earlier though, our Congress is suffering from stagnation.  If no other candidate within the incumbent party runs against the incumbent, then those followers of the incumbent party have a tough decision to make.  They can refrain from voting, which appears to have increased in popularity, vote for a candidate which has already proven to be unsatisfactory, or vote for a candidate which may hold a good portion of distasteful stances.  Consequently, it is rare that even a large and precipitous public movement results in a mass exodus of congressmen.  Moreover, measures can be taken within a unicameral system to create the desired cooling effect without creating a fission that further distances congress members from each other in an already polarized environment.  If we want to keep with measures similar to the ones in place, we can increase the term limits in the House and stagger the election cycles.

The founders were also wary of predatory and opportunistic elements on commerce in an unstable environment and thought that the Senate would help to mitigate the chances of periods of instability.  However, senators and representatives are susceptible to many of the same corrupting interests in exactly the same ways.  It is not like interest groups have to change tactics when coaxing political favors from senators as opposed to representatives.  And since the vast majority of these politicians are all culled through a deeply entrenched two-party system, it makes it easier to coordinate their talking points in congress with the evidence produced in biased think tanks and other data-manipulating organizations.  If we screen citizens who wish to work in our legislative system to create a pool of qualified candidates for office, we can have a mixture of elected and lottery officials (http://chankyr.com/2013/01/25/nested-council-system-w-lotteries-transferable-vote-elections/).  It will then be much harder for special interest groups to corrupt the both elected and lottery officials.  This will be especially so since lottery officials will be anonymous until the moment of appointment. They will be free from campaign financing pressures and free from the pressures to acquiesce to intraparty politics.

All in all, I believe it is possible to have a unicameral legislative system while still having preventative measures to guard against impulsive actions, power abuses by the majority, and instability.  If structured the right way, it can also provide a fairer representation of our citizenry and resources while improving legislative efficiency.

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