How to Fix the Senate

January 31st, 2011

The United States Senate is a fine old institution. It was created in order to facilitate careful, reasoned debate. Some of the greatest speeches in American history were delivered on the floor of the Senate. The House can be flighty, responding immediately to the passions of the moment, while the Senate is more deliberative, less prone to hasty action. It provides a valuable counterweight to the House.

But the Senate also suffers from a nasty problem: it is quite unrepresentative of the American people. Because each state, regardless of its population, gets two Senators, the Senate is dominated by small states. Californians, with 69 times the population of Wyoming, get 1/69th as large a vote in the Senate as inhabitants of Wyoming (Wyomingans? Wyomingers?) This is grossly unfair, but it’s what the Constitution intended.

However, the framers of the Constitution did not anticipate the extreme situation that would develop two hundred years after they wrote it. Back then, the most populous state, Virginia, had only 11 times as many people as the least populous state, Delaware. In other words, the framers were willing to accept an 11:1 degree of unfairness in the Senate. Would they have supported a 69:1 degree of unfairness?

The result of this system is that Senators representing just 10% of the total population can block by filibuster the will of the other 90% of the population. Senators representing just 20% of the population hold a majority in the Senate, making it possible for 20% of the population to impose its will on the other 80% -- in the Senate.

The consequences of this lopsided representation show up in a thousand ways. Here’s one of the simplest: the amount of money that the Federal government lavishes on the states. Here’s a scatter diagram showing how much federal money (relative to tax income) the federal government spends on each state:

It’s obvious from this diagram that the little states with populations less than 10 million get the big money. True, some of the little states don’t get that much money, but it’s equally true that the big states all lose out. In effect, the federal government transfers billions of dollars from populous states to unpopulous states. Why would it do so? Because the unpopulous states are so powerful in the Senate.

So there’s no doubt that the Senate is a grossly unfair institution that cheats the majority of the American people for the benefit of a minority. What can we do about this? There are plenty of proposals to abolish the Senate, but a step so radical has no chance of happening. Moreover, in order to pass an amendment to the Constitution, you need approval by two-thirds of the state legislatures – less than 10% of the population could block it, and they would most certainly vote it down, because such an amendment would reduce their power (and their income).

There’s another way to tackle this problem: split up states. For example, suppose California were to split into two states of approximately equal populations. The two new states, Northern California and Southern California, would each apply for admission to the Union, which would require approval by the Senate. But in this case, the argument in favor of accepting them is overwhelming. They represent different cultures; it would reduce the horrible disparity in the Senate; it would add only two Senators. Why not? Besides, if they weren’t accepted, the two Californias would become independent nations, taking some 10% of the country’s GDP with them. America could not afford such a loss. They’d get in.

But if we can split California, why not other states? How about New York, Florida, and Texas? All of these states are currently on the losing end of federal monies. Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan – all states with more than ten million inhabitants – could all split up. Indeed, California could probably be split up three ways. If all of these changes took place, there would be 118 Senators and the worst representational disparity would likely be between Southern California, with some 15 million residents, and Wyoming, with just half a million -- reducing the representational disparity from 69:1 to 30:1. Who could argue against such a proposal?