Alec MacGillis -- In the Senate, Small States Wield Outsize Power

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By Alec MacGillis
Sunday, August 9, 2009

Wonder why President Obama is having a hard time enacting his agenda after sweeping to victory and with large congressional majorities on his side?

Look to the Senate, the chamber designed to thwart popular will.

There is much grousing on the left about the filibuster, the threat of which has taken such hold that routine bills now need 60 votes. Getting less attention is the undemocratic character of the Senate itself.

Why, for example, have even Democratic senators been resistant on health-care reform? It might be because so many of the key players represent so few of the voters who carried Obama to victory -- and so few of the nation's uninsured. The Senate Finance Committee's "Gang of Six" that is drafting health-care legislation that may shape the final deal -- without a public insurance option -- represents six states that are among the least populous in the country: Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, Maine, New Mexico and Iowa.

Between them, those six states hold 8.4 million people -- less than New Jersey -- and represent 3 percent of the U.S. population. North Dakota and Wyoming each have fewer than 80,000 uninsured people, in a country where about 47 million lack insurance. In the House, those six states have 13 seats out of 435, 3 percent of the whole. In the Senate, those six members are crafting what may well be the blueprint for reform.

Climate change legislation, which passed in the House, also faces daunting odds. Why? Because agriculture, coal and oil interests hold far more sway in the Senate. In the House, the big coal state of Wyoming has a single vote to New York's 29 and California's 53. In the Senate, each state has two. The two Dakotas (total population: 1.4 million) together have twice as much say in the Senate as does Florida (18.3 million) or Texas (24.3 million) or Illinois (12.9 million).

Was this really what the founders had in mind? One popular story tells of Thomas Jefferson asking George Washington what the Senate's purpose is. "Why did you pour that coffee into your saucer?" Washington asked in return. "To cool it," Jefferson replied. To which Washington said, "Even so, we pour legislation in the senatorial saucer to cool it." A nice tale. But what if the coffee gets so cold that no one bothers to drink it? Or if the Senate takes its coffee black in a country that opted overwhelmingly for sugar and cream?

Kent Conrad, Democrat from North Dakota (pop. 641,481, third smallest), chairman of the Budget Committee and one of the Gang of Six, does not see any problem. Asked whether it is appropriate that his vote counts as much as those of senators from states 20 times as large, he was flummoxed. "One would hope that people would support the Constitution of the United States," said Conrad, who was reelected with 150,000 votes in 2006, when Virginia's Jim Webb needed 1.2 million votes to win. "This was the grand bargain that was struck when the Founding Fathers determined the structure and form of the United States Congress." He added: "Are you proposing changing the Constitution?"

Well, maybe. Regardless, there's nothing wrong with taking a closer look at how things came to be the way they are. The fact remains that, hallowed as it is, the Senate is as much a product of bare-knuckled, self-interested politics as last week's fight over military earmarks. In Philadelphia in 1787, the smaller states favored the New Jersey Plan -- one chamber with equal representation per state -- while James Madison argued for two chambers, both apportioned by population, which would benefit his Virginia.

The delegates finally settled on the Connecticut Compromise, or the Great Compromise. Seats in the lower chamber would be apportioned by population (with some residents counting more than others, of course) while seats in the upper chamber would be awarded two per state.

The idea was to safeguard states' rights at a time when the former colonies were still trying to get used to this new country of theirs. But the big/small divide was nothing like what we have today. Virginia, the biggest of the original 13 states, had 538,000 people in 1780, or 12 times as many people as the smallest state, Delaware.

Today, California is 70 times as large as the smallest state, Wyoming, whose population of 533,000 is smaller than that of the average congressional district, and, yes, smaller than that of Washington D.C., which has zero votes in Congress to Wyoming's three. The 10 largest states are home to more than half the people in the country, yet have only a fifth of the votes in the Senate. The 21 smallest states together hold fewer people than California's 36.7 million -- which means there are 42 senators who together represent fewer constituents than Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. And under Senate rules, of course, those 42 senators -- representing barely more than a tenth of the country's population -- can mount a filibuster.


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