Saturday, November 11, 2006

Nice election results; shame about the Constitutional structure (Josh C)

By temperament, I'm a small-c conservative. If a political system is working reasonably well, I tend to be leery of dramatically changing it; if it's working poorly, my first impulse is to look for reforms that can be made within, rather than to, the overall constitutional and institutional structure of the system.
That said, after the last several national elections, I find myself asking myself, increasingly frequently and with decreasing inhibition: the Senate - what's the point?
I like the idea of divided government and checks and balances (and indeed wish we had more of it, and am looking forward to having more of it for the next couple of years). Bicameralism is fine by me. But it seems to me that there's something weird about a system in which a few thousand Montanans or Virginians can determine who controls half of the national legislative branch. On a deeper level, the Senate seems to give undue advantage to certain demographics within the US, which seem hard to square with ideals of political equality (which I tend to think are central to democracy).
I don't imagine that I'll find any takers -- but would anyone here care to defend the Senate? If not, does anyone have any ideas about what might be a plausible alternative for one house of a bicameral legislature? Or should we scrap bicameralism altogether -- and if so, why? (My pragmatic argument against scrapping legislative bicameralism: the 1996 [whoops! -- I meant 1994] House Republicans.)

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

you could go knesset style for the house: proportional representation for one body, then regional representation.

initially, the senate was born out of the conception among the founders that each state was an individual nearly sovereign member of the union, not that the state divisions are merely administrative. thus, in pre-1860 literature, you will mostly see things written as "The United States are...". But, suddenly after the Civil War, the conception changed. Suddenly, our union was indivisible. It beame "The United States is..."

Gracchi said...

I'm not going to defend the states disproportionality- New York the same weight as Montana seems incoherent. but the idea of elections which are phased seems to me to be quite sensible. You are right about the House say in 1994 but you have to ask why that happened- why such extremists were elected and the reason might be found in the fact that the election was an, to quote Nye Bevan, emotional spasm. The phased election in the senate means that it is less subject to emotional spasms so that it keeps more equitably to the nation's longterm mood.

Josh Cherniss said...

Great comments, both. I certainly am sympathetic to the idea of keeping an 'upper' house which has less frequent elections. There may also be an argument to be made for having a larger and a smaller body. In both cases, the basic idea would be that one wants to have two distinct houses which will be structured so as to make possible different sorts of deliberation; that being the case, it might also make sense to retain an element of the division of labour we currently have in the US system (e.g. the House plays a greater role in budgetary matters, the Senate in judicial and foreign policy matters) -- though I'm not sure that it's clear that these different tasks are best apportioned as they are currently (though giving the longer-term house more of a role in foreign policy does make sense to me, if the longer-term house does indeed effectively minimise the influence of 'hotheads' and 'emotional spasms')

mshugart said...

Remember, Madison wanted a Senate that was apportioned just like the House (no over-representation for small states) and selected by the House itself (from candidates nominated by the state legislatures). And the executive would have been just that: selected by Congress to execute its will. No separate origin, no veto.

Not a bad plan. But the representatives of Delaware and other small states killed it. Back then the ratio of largest to smallest state was about 12:1. Now more like 66:1. How long is the logroll (oops, I meant to say GREAT COMPROMISE) of 1787 sustainable?

mshugart said...

On the "pragmatic" reason for not wanting to scrap the Senate being the 1994 Republican "revolution," a couple of things:

1. As long as you have the president and his veto, you do not need the Senate to check the "passions" of the House.

2. If there were neither a Senate (in the form we know it) nor a separate president with a veto, I doubt very much you would have had anything like the 1994 class. That was as much a reaction to the incumbent president as anything else. On the other hand, you would not have had such long-term Democratic domination of the House had voters had only their House vote as a means to express a national-executive preference. There surely would have been alternation in Congress several times between 1954 and 1994, and thus the passions that built up within the part of the electorate that gave the Republicans their 1994 surge would have been moderated over time.