Saturday, December 22, 2007


I explain below that I am selecting out a number of responses to the Bill Moyers interview and responding to them specifically, in order to encourage more focused discussion on the particular issues that are raised.

Scott writes, "Okay, let's assume we were to eliminate the Senate," and then goes on to say that this would transfer much too much power to urban centers. I talk about "small states" in one of the following posts, but I want to specify that I have no desire to "eliminate the Senate." I think we're much too large a country to get along with a one-house legislature. I do believe that a number of small states should emulate Nebraska's example and shift to unicameralism; Jesse Ventura suggested that, altogether sensibly, for Minnesota, but the proposal went nowhere. But I think that Texas is already too large to make unicameralism desirable.

Also, even though I rail against the degree of disproportionate power held by small states in the Senate, I could easily live, as the result of a latter day compromise, with a more modest boost for small states. The "two-senator" bonus for the electoral college helps small states, but, obviously, it has significantly less impact than does the equality of voting power in the Senate itself. Larry Sabato, a political scientist from Virginia who has written a very interesting book, "A More Perfect Constitution," that also suggests constitutional reform and calls for a new convention, argues in favor of giving the largest states four senators, mid-size states three senators, and leaving small states at their current two. (This would also have the virtue, Sabato believes, of increasing the size of the Senate, which would be desirable given the incredible workload and sweep of issues that the Senate must consider.) I would still be unhappy if Wyoming had "only" 35 times the voting power of California instead of its present 70. But if, say, we ended up with the small states having 5-10 times the voting power, as part of a deal to get support for other desirable changes, then I would almost certainly sign on.

No one can believe in the possibility of a "perfect constitution." One is always going to have to compromise.


Anonymous eli poupko said...

It might also be interesting to note that bicameralism has been shown to reduce voter turnout. (Robert Jackman, "Political Institutions and Voter Turnout in the Industrial Democracies," 81 Am. Pol. Sci. Rev. 408, 414-415.)

December 22, 2007 11:49 AM  
Blogger Gene Wine said...

Presently the Senate does as good a job as the House, even with its greater workload. (This omits the filibuster, which will have to be eliminated). Senators have time to debate, whereas in the House members have to be corraled and voted by the parties.

December 22, 2007 1:31 PM  
Blogger jsalvati said...

Can you explain why you think "we're much too large a country to get along with a one-house legislature." What does being a large country have to do with having more than one legislative house? You seem to assume this is obvious, but I'm having a hard time coming up with a reason. What am I missing? Do you give your reasoning in your book?

December 22, 2007 10:05 PM  
Blogger Sandy Levinson said...

I think the larger the country, the better it is to have alternative methods of representation (larger areas, longer terms) in order to capture more nuances of public opinion and the like. The political science literature on bicameralism shows a definite link between size and the rejection of unicameralism, though, for obvious reasons, the best predictor of bicameralism is federalism.

The difference between the House and Senate, incidentally, is not only that senators have more time to debate, but also that representatives tend to specialize more in specific issue areas. They are less likely to be senatorial bloviators and more likely to be quite knowledgeable about the issues of concern to their major committees.

December 22, 2007 10:43 PM  
Blogger Gene Wine said...

One districted house of 100 would be more inclined to consider legislation from the national point of view rather than a house of 435. And that is, of course, what a national legislature should do, because its chief function is to make laws for everybody. Naturally they would still have to consider their districts, because that is where they would be elected from.

December 23, 2007 9:44 AM  
Anonymous Ed Townsley said...

I would suggest that if you want a "more democratic" government, the most important single change would be to add to Article I of the Constitution rules for both the House and the Senate that would: require single subject legislation (as the State of Washington now has); forbid Congress from closed door, back-room accommodations in which legislation can currently be transmogrified without scrutiny, debate, or full vote; require all parts of every bill to be open to discussion and subject to vote, item by item; and to forbid the Congress from abdicating its responsibilities as it did in the Iraq War.

March 23, 2008 4:50 PM  
Blogger Scott Trimble said...

Rather than have varying numbers of senators for each state, I would suggest giving each state four senators, elected together in a single election by a proportional representation type model (giving minor parties and independents a chance to get a foot in the door), with each state's delegation having a different number of votes, divided among its four senators according to the proportion of the vote they garnered in their state's election. Each state's delegation would have a total number of votes equal to the number of members it has in the House, but no state would have less than ten votes.

June 9, 2008 3:05 AM  

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