Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Ezra Klein: After Health Reform, it's Time for Senate Reform

I've been feeling this way for a while, especially after watching the shameful spectacle in the Senate last month.
In today's Senate, 55 votes isn't enough to "win," or anything close to it; it's enough to get you five votes away from the 60 votes you need to shut down a filibuster. Only then, in most cases, can a law be passed. The modern Senate is a radically different institution than the Senate of the 1960s, and the dysfunction exhibited in its debate over health care -- the absence of bipartisanship, the use of the filibuster to obstruct progress rather than protect debate, the ability of any given senator to hold the bill hostage to his or her demands -- has convinced many, both inside and outside the chamber, that it needs to be fixed.

This might seem an odd moment to argue that the Senate is fundamentally broken and repairs should top our list of priorities. After all, the Senate passed a $900 billion health-care bill Thursday morning. But consider the context: Arlen Specter's defection from the Republican Party earlier this year gave Democrats 60 votes in the Senate -- a larger majority than either party has had since the '70s. Democrats also controlled the House and the presidency, and were working in the aftermath of a financial crisis that occurred on a Republican president's watch. This was a test of whether a party could govern when everything was stacked in its favor.

The answer seems to be, well, not really. (My emphasis)
He's absolutely right. The once-noble U.S. Senate has become one of the most undemocratic institutions in the country. We now have a system where every single senator possesses, in effect, veto power. The fact that a handful of senators can kill legislation supported by huge majorities in the House (which is by definition closer to the will of the people) should infuriate you regardless of your party affiliation. Simply put, the current Senate rules are a slap in the face to the separation of powers that the Constitution so carefully constructed, and we have to change those rules.

There is no shortage of reform proposals floating around, but I'll point out a few I think are worth looking at.
  • First of all, the cloture threshold should either be lowered to 55 or the filibuster should be done away with entirely. The idea that we should have a supermajority requirement for anything other than a constitutional amendment is simply preposterous.
  • The Senate must become more representative by population. I think this is one of the biggest factors in creating deadlock. When our nation was founded, the Senate was elected by state legislatures and it therefore made sense for each state to be equally represented. Now that we elect senators directly, the old arrangement defies Supreme Court precedent--in Reynolds v. Sims, the Court held that state legislatures have to be apportioned by population. The "one-person-one-vote" rule has stuck, and rightly so--without it, small counties could outvote big cities despite population disparities as big as 41-1, and Henry County voters would essentially have "more" of a vote than Fairfax County voters. But that is still happening at the Federal level, and it seems fundamentally unfair that Wyoming and the Dakotas can together outvote New York, Texas and California.
  • As a solution to the above problem, Larry Sabato has suggested adding as many as two senators to the largest states, thereby creating a more representative Senate. No state would lose senators, but some states would end up with a total of three or four. I think this is an idea worth considering, and it has the advantage of being workable since nobody stands to lose representation.
  • This is an idea I haven't heard anyone else mention, so I'm claiming it as a 220 South exclusive. I say we keep the current two-senators per state setup, but add 100 National Senators to be elected at large from one nationwide district. This would be party-list proportional representation as is done in some European nations: instead of voting for an individual candidate, you would just vote for a party. The seats would then be assigned by proportion of the national vote--if your party wins 55% of the vote, then you've got 55 shiny new senators. This system would preserve the states' current equality while truly honoring the one-person-one-vote principle. Those senators would have purely national issues at heart, and they wouldn't have to worry about bringing home the bacon to their states.
Oh, and House members should have a four-year term. This constant campaign crap is ridiculous.


Anonymous said...

This makes more sense than anything I have seen in a while, especially the idea of "at large" senators. What a concept. I also agree completely with giving Representatives a 4-year term. They should at least be able to get their offices furnished before the opposition is yapping at their heels.

Max said...

Thanks for the kind words. If the last two years have taught us anything, it is that our whole system needs reform--from our grueling presidential nominating process to the creaky machinery of Capitol Hill, things just aren't working the way they should.

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