Conservatives, liberals propose Senate reform

This year could bring a major change in the U.S. Senate. Some pundits predict the Republicans will gain a majority, giving them control over both houses of Congress.

After Labor Day, campaigns have begun to heat up. In Maine, incumbent GOP Sen. Susan Collins, considered one of the few Senate moderates, faces Democrat Shenna Bellows, a long shot but credible candidate now picking up support from her fellow Democrats.

Whatever the outcome, Washington deadlock is almost certain to continue. Some conservative and liberal commentators believe the Senate itself should be reformed to make it more representative and better able to function. Of course, they don’t agree on the needed reforms.

The Senate was at the center of the constitutional compromise at the outset of the U.S.

Members of the House of Representatives, elected by the people, would are distributed based on state population. But if Congress were based only on population alone, three states would have then had enough votes to overrule the other ten. The small states got the Senate, with each state assigned two seats.

Senators would not be elected by the people. State legislatures would choose senators in hopes of electing elite leaders who could keep a lid on popular enthusiasms.

But people grew increasingly unhappy with Senate elections by state legislatures. Some senators had gained their seats through corruption and payoffs.

Senators were often wealthy men, who protected the interests of the privileged few. Finally, in 1913, the Constitution was amended to provide for popular election of senators.

Now, people on both ends of the political spectrum have become unhappy with the original compromise and the changed method of electing senators.

A conservative proposal would return to the election of U.S. senators by state legislatures, making it more representative. One commentator believes that today most states oppose the Affordable Care Act, while an unrepresentative Senate Democratic majority supports it.

Despite the political swing toward conservatives, they have been frustrated by their inability thus far to control the Senate.

House districts are often engineered to produce GOP majorities, even though the Republicans get a minority of all state votes when all House elections are combined. Running statewide, Democratic Senate candidates win, because they don’t have to worry about district lines. That could explain the difference between the two houses on the ACA.

Some conservatives are wary of too much democracy, a view in line with the thinking of the people who took part in the original constitutional negotiations. Some of the country’s founders thought the president and the Senate would serve as checks on the popularly elected House.

Today’s advocates of state legislative elections of senators also lament the relative weakness of state governments compared with the federal government. The change to direct elections stripped states of some Washington influence, which its repeal could restore.

What about the liberals? While the conservatives think the Senate is too liberal, the liberals think it is too conservative.

They surely don’t want an end to direct elections. They argue the state-selected Senate once assured slave states of enough voting power to block the abolition slavery.

Though direct elections were introduced, liberals have remained concerned the Senate can still block essential legislation authorizing the federal government action.

Of course, the Senate could be less of a problem for either party if the filibuster were eliminated. By requiring 60 votes to pass a bill, instead of the simple majority dictated by the Constitution, a minority can block all legislation. But senators cannot agree to end the filibuster by simply amending Senate rules.

Minority control is an even bigger problem. With two votes for each state, senators representing a minority of the U.S. population can control the Senate.

Right now, senators from 21 states with a total population less than California’s can block any legislation.

Senators from California, with the largest population, represent 66 times as many people as those from Wyoming, the state with the smallest population.

One liberal solution would be to have Senate seats allocated by population, though each state would be assured of at least one seat. California, which usually votes Democratic, with 12 percent of the total population, would gain from its current two percent of the Senate seats.

To adopt the reforms that either side advocates would require amending the Constitution, and that’s not likely to happen. It takes two-thirds of the Congress and three-quarters of the states to amend it.

Of course, the elections this year won’t lead to such changes. We are likely to end up with more partisanship, divided government and continued stalemate.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil is a former local, state, national and international organization official. He is an author and newspaper columnist.