A Tale of Senates, Part II

Dear Group,

I closed Monday’s post, A Tale of Senates, Part I, with:

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.

There’s more to the story. Until 1912 the U.S. Senate was even more anti-democratic than today.

Article 1, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution as written in 1787 specifies a Senate even less representative than what it is today. Originally, Senators were to be chosen by the State legislatures not directly by voters. It took nearly a hundred years of agitation and speeches to move in a more democratic direction with ratification of the 17th Amendment to the Constitutionin 1912. The 17th Amendment mandates election of U.S. Senators by the voters of each State, taking away that power from the state legislators. Decades of perceived state government corruption and cronyism were finally enough. (Click 17th Amendment to the Constitution for some interesting reading about the history of the 17th.) 

In my primary and secondary education I was taught to think of the U.S. Senate as the more august and deliberative body than the House of Representatives. U.S. Senators have to be older, 30 years, as opposed to 25 years for Representatives. Senators serve for six years, as opposed to two for House members, so they are freer of the “political whims of the common folk.” (The electorate might forget a perceived faux pas by a Senator when facing re-election nearly six years later.) 

Now I see the U.S. Senate in more nuanced fashion. Individual U.S. Senators, stand out prominently in my mind in part because they are simply there longer (six years) and in part because there are fewer of them (100 v. 435 voting Representatives),  Their generally greater longevity in office and fewer numbers makes it the easier for me to mentally attach a Senator than a Representative to a particular State. 

More importantly, I now see the U.S. Senate as awarding inordinate power to a minority, a distinctly anti-democratic institution shaped by slavery (Three-Fifths Compromise) and state-based tribalism (Connecticut Compromise), an institution that gives undue power to a Mitch McConnell (representing 4,468,402 Kentuckians) over a Charles Schumer (representing 19,542,209 New Yorkers) or a Diane Feinstein (representing 39,557,045 Californians). See Control by the Minority.

Our governance is a product of a history of which many of us are largely unaware. The U.S. Senate is far more anti-democratic than the Electoral College (a topic for another day), but the peculiarities of the Senate get far less ink.

The history of senates in the U.S., both state and federal, shows general movement toward more direct representational democracy. State senators now represent approximately equal populations determined census rather than fixed geographic areas. State senators are elected by the voters of their district. U.S. Senators are now elected by the voters of their respective States (17th Amendment, 1912) rather than state legislatures. Regardless, the U.S. Senate stands as a model of unequal representation.

The U.S. Senate may be the older, more deliberative and thoughtful of the two chambers of Congress, but it is also a device for rule by a minority. 

Keep to the high ground,