A Tale of Senates, Part I

Dear Group,

From Wikipedia:

senate is a deliberative assembly, often the upper house or chamber of a bicamerallegislature. The name comes from the ancientRoman Senate (Latin: Senatus), so-called as an assembly of the senior (Latin: senex, meaning “the elder” or “old man”) and therefore allegedly wiser and more experienced members of the society or ruling class. Thus, the literal meaning of the word “senate” is Assembly of Elders.

Every state in the United States has a bicameral legislature except Nebraska (unicameral by referendum in 1936). In each case the smaller chamber is called the Senate and is usually referred to as the upper house. This chamber typically, but not always, has the exclusive power to confirm appointments made by the governor and to try articles of impeachment. [wikipedia]

All state senators serve terms of either 2 or 4 years. In 29 states senators serve 4 year terms and representatives serve 2 year terms. In 17 states senators and representatives serve equal terms of either 2 or 4 years. (It’s complicated. See wikipedia for a comprehensive list.) But here is a key contrast: Senators who serve in the federal Senate are unique among “senators” serving in the United States: U.S. Senators stand for re-election only once every 6 years.

When you look at constituent representation in the state and federal senates things get interesting. In every case (49 state senates and the U.S. Senate) there are fewer senators than there are members of the lower house, so necessarily each senator nominally represents more constituents than a representative in the lower house. In Washington State, for example, that ratio is exactly 2 to 1. Each legislative district in Washington State sends two representatives and one senator to the state government in Olympia. Therefore, each constituent in a legislative district in Washington State is served by only one voice in the State Senate, but two voices in the State House of Representatives.

Fun Fact: It turns out every state senator stands for close to the same number of constituents within that state. Why? It didn’t occur by accident, nor was it willingly accepted by all. That uniformity of numerical representation by state senators within a state is the result of two Supreme Court cases from the 1960s, Reynolds v. Sims and Baker v. Carr Reading about these decisions I found enlightening. I urge you to click and read the Historical Background section at the wikipedia article on Reynolds v. SimsThese cases grew out of interpretation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, an amendment adopted in 1868 that itself grew out of the upheavals around slavery and the Civil War. These two Supreme Court cases were in some ways the result of the movement embodied in “one man, one vote,” a slogan used by advocates of political equality who pushed for causes like the right of former slaves and women to vote.

Prior to Reynolds v. Sims and Baker v. Carrstate senates tended to be modeled on the U.S. Senate, i.e. with representation based on geography whereas representation in the lower chamber is typically based on population. Books have been written about how state senate representation changed from geographic to population based in many states before the 1960s. These two Supreme Court cases finally forced redistricting on a population basis on those states that had lagged. 

Today we don’t hear of citizen groups clamoring to go back to the old system of geography-based state senate representation. It’s a settled issue. No one is making the argument that state senators (within  a state) should represent just the people who happen to inhabit a defined piece of real estate instead of representing roughly equal populations of citizens. This is the second way in which the U.S. Senate is unique among senates in the United States: two Senators serve from each State (a piece of real estate). Today that gives the 577,737 residents of Wyoming the same number of U.S. Senators (2) as the 39,557,045 residents of California. Why is that?

The original U.S. Constitution, written in 1787 (eighty years before the 14th Amendment and “Equal Protection”) enshrines the geographic representation of Senators in Article 1, Section 3. Representation of in the U.S. Senate by State, regardless of state population, came about as a result of compromises made to coax small States and slave States into Union. 

Today the U.S. Senate stands unique among senates in the United States. 1) The U.S. Senate is the only senate in the U.S. with a term of office of 6 years (the longest term of any elected official I can think of) and 2) The U.S. Senate is the most anti-democratic senate in the country by representation.

Keep to the high ground,