As the nation girds itself for an epic battle over health care reform, all eyes will be on the U.S. Senate. That chamber, whose members often refer to themselves as the world’s most deliberative body, more accurately can be described as the least representative body outside Britain’s House of Lords, where “minority rule” strangles reform on a regular basis.
While Republicans warn against the Democrats using “reconciliation,” the 51-vote tactic the GOP frames as a “nuclear option,” Democrats should remind the public: There’s nothing wrong with invoking simple majority rule in a body that is, in some ways, deeply undemocratic by design.
Let us remember: The Democrats have a solid majority in the Senate. And polls tell us that a majority of Americans support major health care reform. Yet so far, the party in control has been impotent to enact health care for the public as good as that enjoyed by themselves as senators–because you need 60 out of 100 votes to pass anything in the Senate.
The Senate’s use of that arcane rule known as the “filibuster” means you need 60 votes to stop unlimited debate on a bill and move to a vote. The filibuster allows a mere 41 senators to completely stymie what the vast majority wants.
But it gets worse for those who believe in majority rule. Many of the 41 who could stand in the way of reform represent low-population states, together constituting as little as 20% of the nation’s population (though this figure could be even lower, depending on how the senators vote). Yet they can completely stymie what representatives of the vast majority want.
This is par for the course in the Senate. With two senators awarded per state, regardless of population–a legacy of the deal struck in 1787 partly to keep the slave-owning states from exiting a fledgling nation–New York with more than 19 million people has the same number of senators as Wyoming with a half-a-million people.
It’s only gotten worse over time. When the Senate was created, the most populous state had 12 times more people than the least populous state; now it has 70 times more people, and growing. In the 1960s, the Supreme Court established the groundbreaking principle of majority rule based on “one person, one vote,” meaning that all legislative jurisdictions must be equal in population.
Yet the U.S. Senate completely violates this fundamental principle.
The democratic distortions don’t stop there. Political scientists Frances Lee and Bruce Oppenheimer, in their book “Sizing Up the Senate,” have shown that electing two senators from each state has had the effect of disproportionately favoring the overrepresented low-population states when it comes to national policy, federal spending and even Senate leadership positions.
One result of this affirmative action for small-state conservatives is that large blue states, such as New York, California and Illinois, heavily subsidize conservative red states, such as Alabama, Alaska and North Dakota. Billions in blue-state federal tax dollars end up in red-state pockets, as most conservative states benefit from the type of redistributive government programs that conservatives usually disdain. For every $1 New York sends to Washington, it gets just 79 cents back. It’s been that way for decades, and over the past 25 years New York has lost nearly a half-billion dollars in revenue as a result.
Another result is a drastically unrepresentative Senate, where only five out of 100 senators are Hispanic, black or Asian-American, and only 16 are women. A senator’s average age is an elderly 63 years old, and most are wealthy millionaires. This powerful legislative body debating health care for the entire country is a patrician gerontocracy more closely resembling the ancient Roman Senate than a New England town meeting.
Given a vastly malapportioned and unrepresentative Senate wielding its anti-majoritarian filibuster, it is hardly surprising that minority rule in the Senate consistently undermines majoritarian policy. Besides health care, other important policies have been killed or watered down in the Senate.
It’s no wonder that two of America’s most revered founders, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, opposed the Senate’s creation in the first place. Hamilton, a leading New Yorker, warned in Federalist Paper No. 22 that equal representation in the Senate “contradicts the fundamental maxim of republican government, which requires that the sense of the majority should prevail.”
The United States is now the last advanced nation that does not have universal health care. So it’s not just the senators’ credibility on the line if they fail to provide to all Americans a similar level of health care benefits that they themselves enjoy as senators. It’s the very democratic legitimacy of the body in which they serve.
New America Foundation
Originally published in The New York Daily News. Republished with the author’s permission.