Gerrymandering in the House of Representatives is intentional, while in the Senate it is accidental. The resulting dysfunction in both chambers equally corrupts our republic, violates the founders’ intent and demands an overhaul.
The current government shutdown results as much from presidential pandering as from senatorial submission to his shenanigans. The Senate’s recent abdication of responsibility results from the fact that President Donald Trump’s base has disproportional sway in the Senate, far more than the founders intended.
A recent CNN poll finds that Americans blame the shutdown on Trump over the Democrats by 55 to 32 percent, yet his party controls 53 percent of the Senate.
James Madison had many intentions for the Senate, almost none of which embody the current chamber. The Senate was supposed to be the body of deliberative statesmen, which would check the unruly House.
In “Federalist #62,” he writes “The nature of the senatorial trust [requires] greater extent of information and stability of character.” To get such statesmen in office, senators would be selected by state legislators, the elected of the elected.
A Virginian residing in the most populous state, Madison actually opposed the idea of equal Senate representation for states, fearing domination by the minority would be “injurious.”
Madison’s fears for the Senate have been realized. Whereas in 1790 the ratio between the most and least populous states was 12:1 (Virginia: Delaware), by the 2010 census it was 66:1 (California: Wyoming). Yet all states still have two seats.
In 1790, 30 percent of the population could, through rural states, win a majority in the Senate. Today 17 percent can. Furthermore, with nine Senate seats swinging on 900,000 votes out of 26 million (3 percent), the Senate now hinges on turnout of the bases.
It’s a direct democracy disaster, the opposite of Madison’s intent.
With the president shamelessly stoking rural tribalism on right-wing media, the Senate’s extreme overrepresentation for rural voters caused Trump’s party to gain seats in the 2018 election, a profoundly unfair and destabilizing result given our current crises.
Indeed, our politics today suffers as much from structural flaws as from personal ones. Unless we like how Congress operates, we should operate on Congress.
For reform ideas, we can build on proposals from the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics Director Larry Sabato, author of “A More Perfect Constitution.” The Senate should return to the Madisonian ideal of enlightened statesmen serving the country, rather than tyranny by the minority. This would also mean that Supreme Court debacles like the Brett Kavanaugh hearings would be minimized.
First, let’s double the Senate’s size. Sabato says the 10 biggest states should get four seats each, the next fifteen should get three seats, the rest get two, and D.C. can finally have one. The remaining 65 seats should be split into two groups.
Twenty “national senators” should be statesmen — people like Condoleeza Rice or Al Gore — selected by a quadrennial convention of all 50 governors, rediscovering the Madison ideal of the elected by the elected. The remaining 45 senators would result from proportional voting to break the two party duopoly.
In proportional voting, you cast two votes: one for your local representative and the other for a national party. That way, if you’re a Libertarian (for example), you can still vote for the Republican locally to beat the Democrat, but also for the Libertarian Party. If the Libertarians then win 5 percent of the national vote, they get 10 of the remaining seats. Germany votes this way, and they get the best government in Europe.
These reforms would inject lots of new people and energy into our system. It would also help solve today’s fundamental problem: America is deeply divided between urban and rural, yet rural Americans have much more power than the founders intended.
And the results — the Bush and Trump Electoral College victories, and McConnell’s domination of the Senate — are bad and getting worse.
It was fitting that Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh joined Trump on stage for his final campaign rally in Cape Girardeau, Mo., Limbaugh’s birthplace. Since Limbaugh launched his poisonous radio show in 1988, talk radio has owned rural America, which in turn own the Electoral College and the Senate, which owns the Supreme Court.
All these institutions today can seem partisan and illegitimate.
Our crises of democracy demands we break these chains. Yes, doing so would completely upend our politics.
But our politics need upending.
Views of opinion contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Virginia Mercury.