Sen. Harry Reid is getting pilloried by liberals and gun safety advocates after dropping the proposed federal ban on assault weapons from a package of gun control legislation. It doesn’t matter that the ban is supported by 57% of Americans. Reid insisted he didn’t have the votes needed in the Senate to overcome a Republican filibuster, prompting the obvious response that this is exactly why he should have done more to reform filibuster rules in the first place. Meanwhile, my Senator, Dianne Feinstein of California, vows to keep up the fight, saying she will place the ban in an amendment to the legislation.
Everyone knew that the assault weapons ban was going to be an uphill struggle. But complaining about Harry Reid’s timidity before the National Rifle Association or pining over the return of the talking filibuster doesn’t really get to the root of America’s problematic legislative battles. The fact is, Congress as an institution is structurally undemocratic and that’s the fault of our deeply flawed and outdated Constitution.
The Senate is, of course, the more undemocratic of the two chambers. It was designed that way because of the Electoral College and the Great (more like, awful) Compromise. The Senate is a relic of America’s slave-owning past. As a native of California, the most populous state in the union with more than 38 million people, I don’t like the fact that the votes of my two Senators are diluted and worth less than those of Reid’s and fellow Nevada Senator Dean Heller’s, who only represent more than 2.7 million people. So it’s Reid who gets to decide the fate of a bill that Feinstein – who represents more than 10 times the people he does – introduced.
The New York Times recently published a lengthy analysis of the human costs of the lopsided Senate, among the most malapportioned legislative bodies in the world. As an example, the Times showed that the amount of federal dollars going to the city of Fresno, California, with a population of 948,000, is far less than the amount going to the entire state of Wyoming with a population of just over 576,000. Fresno is a city in decline, suffering with 14% unemployment, while Wyoming has only 5% unemployment. The Senate is so malapportioned that 22 of the smallest states (most of them red and rural) representing 38 million people, have 44 Senators, compared with only two for California. This is a major reason why getting through tough gun safety legislation is extremely difficult, if not impossible. A minority of the population, with an unfair political advantage, has a built-in capacity to block such legislation.
But the Senate has always been lopsided. Even if we had meaningful filibuster reform in the Senate, the assault weapons ban still wouldn’t have made it through the House. The House of Representatives – the so-called “People’s House” – was designed to counteract the patrician Senate by apportioning districts based on population growth. That works all fine and dandy, except when you throw in a little ‘ole Republican sleight-of-hand gerrymandering. Ever since the Tea Party takeover in 2010 ushered in a slew of new Republican governors and state legislators, right-wing lawmakers were able to redraw congressional districts to give the GOP an unfair advantage. So we had the spectacle in 2012 of the GOP capturing 234 House seats to the Democrats’ 201 seats, despite losing 1 million votes to Democrats and 5 million votes to the Democratic President.
So it’s no wonder that the Congress and the GOP have record-low approval ratings. It’s because Congress’ makeup doesn’t truly represent the majority of the American people. If the U.S. had a truly proportional system for the House of Representatives (like in a parliament), Democrats would get something closer to 51% of the seats and Republicans 49%, rather than the current 46%-54% split. Redesigning the Senate is even more problematic because of the Electoral College, giving the small states a veto over any changes that would strip them of their political advantage. Another complication is that the U.S. Senate has equal power with the the lower chamber. Upper chambers in other western-style democracies are considerably weaker than their corresponding lower chambers. So all of these constitutionally built-in advantages for primarily conservative and sparsely populated regions of the United States, combined with the corrupting influence of special interest money, conspire against majority rule.
In America, true progressive legislation just doesn’t have much of a chance because our country’s political system is horribly outdated. The Constitution itself is entrenched, rendering the amendment process virtually impossible (a popular vote referendum on constitutional changes is preferable to the ridiculous 2/3 Congress-3/4 state legislatures ratification requirement). When the punditocracy constantly complains about Beltway gridlock, they don’t acknowledge the obvious structural flaws staring right at them in the face. America needs a new form of democracy. Our version has run its course.
Sunday, 24 March 2013