Sunday, December 20, 2009

Constitutional Blasphemy? Get Rid of the Senate

Our system of government literally does not work any more. The biggest obstacle to a functioning government is the United States Senate itself.

Does this sound crazy?

Consider the power of a Senator. At the time of the ratification of the Constitution, there were approximately 150,000 citizens per Senator. Today, there are 100 Senators, which means that each US Senator represents 3 million citizens, or 20 times the number in 1788.

What are the consequences of this change?

It's important to note the power which the Senate holds. For all practical purposes, Congress can do nothing without it. The function of Congress is primarily to pass laws, and no law can pass Congress without the assent of the Senate. When considering Congress as law-making body, this means that legislative power in the United States is primarily held by 100 people. More specifically, 100 people have the ability to stop any law from passing, and therefore have the leverage to dictate, to a large degree, the content of any legislation that does pass, as well as to decide whether any will pass at all.

This makes a US Senator one of the most powerful people on earth. It also makes them extremely susceptible to bribery. (Or, if you prefer, lobbying.) It is far easier for organized special interests to buy a good part of the US Senate when there are only 100 of them. It would much more difficult if there were 1000, or 2000 of them. To make things worse, senators are elected to six-year terms, which makes them even less responsive to the electorate.

This extreme concentration of power is fundamentally undemocratic. It is also atypical among western democracies. Here is a quick list of the ratio of elected legislators to citizens in some other countries.
Country          # of Legislators          Population          Ratio

UK                    646                         61,000,000            94,000:1
Germany           622                         82,000,000          132,000:1
France               923                         65,000,000            70,000:1
Japan                 722                        128,000,000          177,000:1
Canada              308                        33,000,000            107,000:1
Italy                   945                        60,000,000            63,000:1
United States     535                       300,000,000           561,000:1

The concentration of political power in the American system is striking. In order for the U.S. to bring its legislator-to-citizen ratio within the middle of the range of the other nations above, it would need to increase the number of elected representatives from 535 to around 3000.

Politically, there is almost no conceivable way to get there from here any time soon, if ever. Concentrated power is always averse to dilution. And there is a huge number of people for whom a change in this direction would be beneficial, but who would oppose it because they are fundamentally conservative in nature, and believe that the American system of government is perfect, even though they descend on Washington regularly screaming about how the individuals who populate our system are personally corrupt.

This belief in American exceptionalism is, in fact well grounded. America has an exceptionally high level of military spending and of people in prison. It has an exceptionally bad health care system. It has an exceptionally high level of income disparity. It is highly likely that many or all of these problems are a result of our exceptionally undemocratic political system. It's time to start working on changing that.

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