Monday, February 8, 2010

Apples and Oranges

Matt Yglesias uses the excuse of Annie Lowrey's fun column on imaginative alternate Senates to trot out his favorite option: no Senate at all.
[A]s best I can tell unicameralism works fine in Nebraska, Denmark, the Netherlands, etc. Everyone has strong feelings about Israel, but nobody seems to think that adding an unrepresentative upper house of legislature would solve anything. De facto unicameralism works well enough in Canada and the United Kingdom, but having rendered their upper houses basically powerless both countries face a lot of on-again, off-again pressure to make them less silly.
Nebraska aside, there's just not much to be gained in comparing the American Congress with most parliaments, because their functions within their respective political systems are just so different.   Generally, in a parliamentary system, the role of the legislature is to choose the government, and then pass the things the government proposes until the next round of elections and/or such time that the government no longer commands a majority.  The American Congress is, on the other hand, a transformative legislature; it is (at least) as responsible for actually writing legislation as is the president and his or her administration.

(Yes, this is to some extent an oversimplification...last time I tackled this topic, several commenters objected that a legislature that they were familiar with was not just a rubber stamp.  Objections noted, and more objections welcome, but nevertheless the general point still holds).

Now, that doesn't necessarily mean that bicameralism is necessary in America, but only that it's not really useful to compare Congress to the British House of Commons.

As for Lowery's piece, I think it's a very useful exercise to think about imaginative alternatives to geographically-based representation; it's good to remember exactly what things in a polity's institutional design could be different, and the consequences that flow from choices that were once made.  I tend to like geographic representation, however.  Even in the 21st century, or at least so far in the 21st century, geographic areas still have an enormous effect on our day-to-day lives, and in an enormous nation of 300 millions and dramatically differences by region and area (yes, even now) I think it's very good institutional design to leave plenty of influence for particular and narrow interests.  More to my tastes, when it comes to alternative Senates, are these maps that split the nation into fifty "states" with approximately equal population, from fakeisthenewreal, courtesy of James Fallows.  This sort of thing preserves one of the ideas I like about the Senate, which is (contra Lowery) that the large "districts" allow internal differences, unlike House districts that tend to be more homogeneous.  Both types of districts have their virtues; one of the things that works will in the American Congress is that both sets of virtues, representation of homogeneous and non-homogeneous groups, both have a place.


  1. Is it worth pointing out that you grew up in an area that was (at the time) both underpopulated and heavily dependent on the outcome of geographical resource distribution? Those of us who grew up in the desert missed out on a lot, but there are aspects of the Senate that always seemed valuable to me. One of those was that Arizona had as many Senators as Colorado and California, and therefore had at least some chance in federal distribution of the water coming down the mountains.

    Of course, I have also had a different idea than some of my blue-state buddies about the value of underpopulated states generally...


  2. I once read that the Constitution only demands equal representation for each state in the Senate, leaving open an interesting reform that would not require a constitutional amendment:

    Revise the law to give each state one senator, with the other fifty voted on at large by the nation as a whole. This would tend to creat some interesting senators (perhaps several anti-abortion senators eye-to-eye against several pro-choice senators, a legalize marijuana senator or two, perhaps a gold standard senator, etc.)

    Any comments as to whteher this would be either constitutional or desiarable?

  3. @anonymous:
    That would be ruled unconstitutional. The Court has repeatedly struck down any form of "at large" representation at the federal level. For a very long time, New Mexico elected both Representatives in one election: top two vote getters got both seats. (Senate elections, being staggered, were "normal").
    Plus, that wouldn't leave equal represenatation for each state in the Senate. Wyoming's votes would be worthless in such a national election, compared to the votes of California.
    Finally, it goes DIRECTLY against the 17th amendment, which says 2 from each state, elected by the people of that state.

  4. @Matt Jarvis:
    The type of representation you're talking about in New Mexico is block-voting, where each voter gets two votes, and in reality the GOP and Dems each nominate two candidates: naturally, one party will [almost] always get both seats. Ideally, the "federal senator" scenario Anonymous envisions would be some sort of proportional vote, much fairer than either block voting or the current first-past-the-post.

    Now, the federal court rulings may well have been over-broad and prevented proportional representation, but block-voting is just about the worst system we could use, and shouldn't be allowed.

    As for constitutionality, any real Senate reform will require an amendment; the trick is getting an amendment passed, and avoiding the entrenched clause:

    no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate

    Under the "federal senator" plan, the states themselves would still have equal representation in the Senate (the other 50 senators being elected by the People of the United States), so the entrenched clause wouldn't be violated.

    Now getting 38 states to ratify: that's another problem, unlikely to be solved without the big states (9 of which equal a majority of the population, and who knows what share of the economy) threatening secession.

    To be honest, there is no fair solution without us recognizing one (and only one!) of two things:
    1) that we are a nation-state, and majorly disproportionate representation is inherently undemocratic and a violation of civil rights
    2) that we are a federation, and the constituent sovereign states have the right to secede and, if they wish, renegotiate the terms of their membership in the federation.




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