Politics & Policy

Against Progressive Plans to Tinker with the Senate

Tourists walk past the U.S. Capitol in 2013. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
A response to Jamelle Bouie of the New York Times.

In a provocative Sunday opinion piece for the New York Times, Jamelle Bouie takes aim at the United States Senate. It is “is highly undemocratic and strikingly unrepresentative” institution, dominated by a “Republican coalition of rural whites, exurban whites and anti-tax suburbanites.” This needs to be changed — because everybody knows it is un-American to oppose higher taxes!

Bouie offers an outside-the-box idea. Rather than change the Senate via constitutional amendment, progressives should look to increase the number of Democrats in the Senate by giving representation in the Senate to non-state units—“Washington, D.C., the Atlantic territories, the Pacific territories and the Native tribes.”

Normally, I do not write columns responding to other columns. But Bouie’s piece is typical of the progressive Left’s frustration with the Senate, as well as of an inability to reckon with its role in our constitutional regime. For these reasons, it merits a thorough examination.

For starters, full disclosure: I get it. The Senate is not democratic, and in a republic, that is problematic. All else being equal, I would agree with Bouie. But all else is not equal. This is in fact a very old debate, whose context demands some thoughtful appreciation before slashing changes are made. Why do you think the Constitutional Convention dragged on through the entire summer of 1787? James Madison, James Wilson, and other federalists from the large states insisted on a fully majoritarian system. But the small-state representatives, including John Dickinson and Roger Sherman, said, No dice — you want our assent to this Constitution, we need guarantees.

Interestingly, Bouie seems to be on the side of Dickenson and Sherman — or at least sympathetic. He calls the population disparity between Delaware and Virginia “a large disparity, but not a yawning one.” I do not understand this difference from the standpoint of the principle Bouie is defending. Is the implication that a little bit of anti-democratic bias okay, but past a certain point it is a bad thing? Was the Senate fair in 1787, but not in 2019? When did it become unfair?

I’ve never figured out why progressives think that shifts in population disparities are a salient historical point. Assume that the disparity between Delaware and Virginia in 1787 was as great as the disparity between California and Wyoming. Wouldn’t Dickenson have fought even harder for the Senate as it’s currently apportioned? If anything, he would have probably fought to retain the original structure of the Continental Congress. Otherwise, Delaware would be swamped in the House of Representatives!

And I am not at all sure how giving senators to Guam and Northern Mariana Islands will make the Senate more democratic. Won’t it in fact make it less democratic? How are Los Angelinos and New Yorkers going to have their interests and views better represented in the Senate because the U.S. Virgin Islands is also included? Is Bouie advocating the idea of virtual representation, akin to what the British Parliament backed in the face of colonial protests in the 1770s, whereby progressives in the underrepresented populous states will be “represented” by the progressive senators added from the non-states? Or is it simply okay for the Senate to be anti-democratic, just so long as it is not anti-Democratic?

Regardless, enough is enough for Bouie. The Senate has become a threat to our way of life, and that requires action! Bouie, like many progressives­, pushes in two directions. The first is to make it easier for the Senate to act by eliminating the filibuster. The second is to make the Senate more “democratic” by increasing the number of Democrats.

But won’t these aims be contradictory in practice? Bouie suggests that eliminating the filibuster should be a priority for the next Democratic Senate — presumably before his structural reforms (which would be more difficult) would take effect. So what happens if the GOP gets the Senate back before American Samoa gets representation in the Senate? Without the filibuster, evil Republicans will be able to run roughshod over the land like the Visigoths of late antiquity, using net neutrality and tax reform to slaughter untold millions.

And forgive me if this sounds gauche, but how about progressives . . . y’know . . . try to win over rural America? Bouie dismisses this proposal with a wave of the rhetorical hand. “And while this coalition  —  or its Democratic counterpart of liberal whites and the overwhelming majority of nonwhites  —  isn’t set in stone, it could be years, even decades, before we see meaningful change in the demographic contours of our partisan divides.” So much for that idea! The way Bouie and many progressives present the divide in this country, rural America is hopelessly committed to a kind of ideological revanchism.

Yet even a cursory reading of American history illustrates that, in many ages, it was rural America that was more progressive. Who propelled William Jennings Bryan and his firebrand populism in 1896? Rural America. Who secured Woodrow Wilson a second term in the White House, vindicating the progressive reforms of his first term? Rural America. Which faction in the Democratic party backed the more progressive FDR over the more conservative Al Smith in the 1932 nomination? Rural America. Who pulled Harry Truman across the finish line in 1948? Rural America.

Why can’t the Left win these people over once again? One might actually argue that the task is not as hard as it once was. The current split between rural and urban America really became solidified with the rapid growth of labor unions in the 1930s and ’40s. But organized labor has since fallen by the wayside, all but eliminating this longstanding division. Why can’t the Left yoke urban and rural voters together by, for instance, focusing on issues like the oversized influence of the big banks (a key point of unification during the Progressive Era)? I’m not saying this would be an easy task to accomplish. I’m saying, maybe make an honest effort to do that before packing the Senate.

And if some grand ideological vision cannot yoke the different regions together, why not employ a good old-fashioned logroll? That has been a tried and true tactic since the Tariff of 1824. For instance, ever wonder why the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is housed in the Department of Agriculture rather than, say, Health and Human Services? It gets back to a logroll between representatives from rural and urban America, the former looking for crop subsidies and the latter looking for greater social-welfare spending.

I have been reading these progressive think pieces like Bouie’s on the many awful qualities of the Senate for the better part of a decade. It’s a durable genre for public intellectuals on the left, which makes me suspect that their underlying problem is with any senate, as opposed to the United States Senate. The purpose of our Senate is mainly twofold — to guarantee equal representation among the states, and to slow down the pace and narrow the scope of democratic action. The Left’s criticisms about our Senate are on the surface about the first issue. But I think their deeper objection is that the United States Senate as an institution is conservative. Splitting legislative power across two branches doubles the amount of work that needs to be done, and giving senators longer terms increases policy and political expertise within the upper chamber, which makes sweeping reforms all the more difficult to implement.

And have you noticed that lately the progressive Left is intent on sweeping reform? Medicare for All. The Green New Deal. Universal pre-K. Amnesty for illegal immigrants. Reparations for slavery. Long gone are the days of moderation and technocratic expertise espoused by the likes of Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, and Bill Clinton. It is time to go whole hog! Yet this is the sort of utopian wish list that the Senate was designed to kill. Perhaps this explains why Bouie’s solution to the anti-democratic nature of the Senate is actually to make it more progressive.

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