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

"You have this automatic disequilibrium," said Donald Ritchie, the official Senate historian. "It's clearly inequal. There's no sense of equality except in the sense that the states are equal." Was this what the founders wanted? "I think they would have a hard time imagining how big the country got," he said. "I'm not sure they knew the full ramification of that decision."

For the first few decades in Congress's history, the more democratic House was where the action was. "The authors of the Constitution really thought the House would be the driving engine, and the Senate would just be the senior group that would perfect legislation that came up from the House," Ritchie said.

But after the Missouri Compromise of 1820, it was clear that the battle over slavery would be fought in the upper chamber. After the Civil War, the Senate became the bastion of the GOP as the party pushed to admit pro-Republican states to the union. Nevada was admitted in 1864 to help ratify the Civil War amendments despite being virtually empty; the Dakotas joined in 1889, split in two to provide more votes in the Senate and the Electoral College; Wyoming joined a year later with 63,000 residents.

With these added votes in the Senate and the Electoral College, the Republicans dominated throughout the late 19th century despite Democratic strength in the House. High tariffs, land giveaways in the West, lax regulation of railroads and a pro-business Supreme Court were all thanks partly to the underpopulated new states, says MIT historian Charles Stewart III.

A few decades later, the politics had flipped, and it was the South relying on the Senate -- and the filibuster -- as a bulwark against civil rights legislation. In any case, the Senate's preeminence was established, even as the Britain's House of Lords and upper chambers in other countries' legislatures lost sway. Add the rise of the filibuster and the fact that small-state senators tend to stick around longer, gaining powerful chairmanships under the seniority system, and you've got today's change-resistant Senate.

"We now have probably the most powerful upper house of any legislature," Ritchie said. "Combine that with the inequality, and it creates some peculiar situations."

Not all small states are GOP strongholds. (Hello, Vermont, Delaware and Rhode Island.) And it's true that Obama won the 2008 nomination thanks in part to racking up caucus victories in states such as Idaho and Wyoming.

But since Obama took office, senators from the wide-open spaces have asserted themselves against him over and over. Conrad opposed his plan to cut subsidies for wealthy farmers. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) pushed to focus transportation funding in the stimulus bill on rural areas and last week blocked the lifting of sugar tariffs to protect the ethanol industry.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) sought cuts in stimulus funding for the states; Nebraska is not suffering the kind of deficits bigger states are. He's also resisted Obama's student loan reforms -- Nelnet, a big loan provider, is based in Nebraska, which wouldn't mean much in the House, where Nebraska has three votes out of 435, but means a lot in the Senate. Similarly, on health care, a network of small Montana hospitals boasted to the Wall Street Journal last week that it has daily contact with Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who is leading the Gang of Six -- influence it could never hope to have in the House.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has declared that the cap-and-trade bill will require even more concessions to agriculture, while a group of rural Midwestern utilities that represents 4 percent of the nation's customers is mobilizing to lobby their small-state senators. The bill passed the House by only seven votes; getting it through the Senate "is going to be the House vote in spades," said Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

When Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood testified before a Senate committee in June about the need for investments in public transit, he got affirmation from Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.). But Lautenberg was canceled out by John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), from a state 6 percent the size of New Jersey. "We have significant reservations in Wyoming about Washington coming and saying in all its wisdom, 'This is how we want people living,' " Barrasso said.

And then there's the Senate's age-old distortion of distributive politics, in which goodies are doled out on anything but a per-capita basis. California, Illinois, New York and New Jersey are among the 10 states that get the least back per tax dollar sent to Washington; Alaska, the Dakotas and West Virginia are among those that get the most.

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