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Has Congress Developed An Undemocratic Small State Bias?
Today Ezra Klein wrote a very interesting piece about Common Cause's new lawsuit challenging the Constitutionality of the filibuster. In his piece he has this passage:
In the end, the Constitution prescribed six instances in which Congress would require more than a majority vote: impeaching the president, expelling members, overriding a presidential veto of a bill or order, ratifying treaties and amending the Constitution. And as Bondurant writes, “The Framers were aware of the established rule of construction, expressio unius est exclusio alterius, and that by adopting these six exceptions to the principle of majority rule, they were excluding other exceptions.” By contrast, in the Bill of Rights, the Founders were careful to state that “the enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
That majority vote played into another principle, as well: the “finely wrought” compromise over proper representation. At the time of the country’s founding, seven of the 13 states, representing 27 percent of the population, could command a majority in the Senate. Today, with the filibuster, 21 of the 50 states, representing 11 percent of the population, can muster the 41 votes to stop a majority in the Senate. “The supermajority vote requirement,” Bondurant argues, thus “upsets the Great Compromise’s carefully crafted balance between the large states and the small states.”
This insight - that the way the country has grown and added states since our founding over 200 years ago may have upset the large/small state construct of our Congress - is an idea we explored at a recent forum we convened at Tufts University on "Renewing Our Democracy."
A spring research fellow here at NDN and current Tufts senior, Leslie Ogden, researched this idea, presented at the forum, and published this article containing data Ezra eventually tweeted about today:
The list of reasons why Americans feel their politics are broken is long and growing. Here’s one of many: The U.S. Senate, which due to the way the U.S. population has grown and settled, has developed a “small state bias” so grave that it is on the verge of becoming an undemocratic institution. The issue is serious enough that it has become necessary to question whether major reform of Congress, and particularly the Senate, is needed.
According to the 2010 census, it is now the case that half of the United States’ population lives in just nine states, with the other half of America living in the other 41 states. While the voters in these top nine states have equal representation in the House with 223 Representatives (the other half has 212), in the Senate it is a different story. Because of this population distribution, the half of the U.S. living in the largest nine states is represented by 18 Senators. The other half of the country living in the other 41 states has 82 Senators, more than four times as many. You don’t have to be good at math to see how much less representation in Congress those living in the big states have today.
Let’s take a closer look at this dynamic by examining California. With a population of about 37 million, California has more than 66 times the population of the smallest state, Wyoming, which has 563,626 people. California has 53 Representatives, and two Senators; Wyoming, one Representative and two Senators. So despite having 66 times the population of Wyoming, California has only 53 times the number of Representatives and an equal number in the Senate.
Furthermore, the four smallest states combined have eight Senators, giving California only a quarter as many Senators as Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming, even though California has 14 times the population of these states combined.
At our forum, which included a presenation by Pam Wilmot, the head of Common Cause in Massachusetts, we also looked at moving towards a single national popular vote for President and recent efforts to make it harder for people to vote. However you feel about the large/small state issue we raise here (which I think is pretty serious) we hope this research, this forum and the other articles we published from the forum will help stimulate a vigerous debate about ways we can renew and improve our democracy.