Three reasons why Congress is broken

Posted by AzBlueMeanie:

Yesterday's vote in the U.S. Senate, where a minority of members could block a background checks amendment to a gun safety bill that received a majority vote of 55 votes, based solely upon an undemocratic Senate cloture rule (filibuster), demonstrated how badly Congress is broken.

The first, and most important reason why Congress is broken, is the influence of money in campaigns. Ever since Arizona's contribution to truly awful U.S. Supreme Court Justices, William Rehnquist, invoked the plutocratic principle that "money equals speech" in Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976), later expanded upon by the conservative activist Court in a series of bad decisions culminating in Citizens United v. FEC, 558 U.S. 310 (2010)("corporations are people"), this country has been on a glide path to the end of egalitarian democracy, and the rise of an über-rich elite plutocracy or corporatocracy.

Only a tiny fraction of Americans actually give campaign contributions to political
candidates, parties or PACs. Individuals who give contributions large enough to be itemized (over $200) is even smaller. Donor Demographics | OpenSecrets.

Screenshot from 2013-04-18 13:24:40

The average voter simply has no influence over politicians for political office for this reason. Only a tiny number of elite über-rich individuals and corporate PACs have any influence over politicians for political office. Campaigns have become astronomically expensive since the U.S. Supreme Court removed all constraints on campaign spending.

Senators either wanted to attract campaign contributions, or openly expressed their fear of a well financed opponent, or an independent expenditure committee or Super-PAC spending money against them in their next campaign. The influence — or fear — of money in campaigns is corrupting our democratic process, and distorting the legislative process. This is the damage that a conservative activist U.S. Supreme Court has wrought.

It is going to require a constitutional amendment to reverse the U.S. Supreme Court, an amendment which declares that money is not speech, and corporations are not people, and that Congress has the power to regulate campaign contributions and expenditures. Several versions of this amendment have been introduced in Congress, but have received no action. It is up to the public to demand action on this amendment, and to make this amendment to take our country back from a a tiny number of elite über-rich individuals a top priority.

The second reason Congress is broken is the self-imposed unlimited debate and cloture rules (filibuster) of the Senate. As President Woodrow Wilson said in 1917:

“[The] Senate of the United States is the only legislative body in the world which cannot act when its majority is ready for action. A little group of willful men, representing no opinion but their own, have rendered the great government of the United States helpless and contemptible.”

No other legislative body in the world follows the unlimited debate and cloture rules of the U.S. Senate (other similar practices exist). State legislatures do not follow the rules of the U.S. Senate. It is not provided for in the U.S. Constitution, but by Senate rules. It is undemocratic, allowing a minority to thwart the will of the majority. The "world's greatest deliberative body" (sic) has been rendered "helpless and contemptible,” unwilling and incapable of even debating the merits of a bill, let alone to cast an up or down substantive vote.

President Wilson would be shocked and enraged at how the Septegenarian Ninja Turtle, Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, has so completely broken the U.S. Senate with his partisan political strategy of "filibuster everything" to thwart the agenda of President Obama. It is an unprecedented level of obstruction that debases our democratic system of government and the legislative process.

FillibusterChart

The Senate writes its own rules of procedure. It can eliminate its extended debate and cloture rules, or modify its rules. This opportunity presented itself earlier this year, but Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid, wanting to preserve the historical practices of the Senate, reached a "gentleman's agreement" with the Septegenarian Ninja Turtle, Mitch McConnell, which McConnell immediately reneged on.

The third reason Congress is broken is structural and demographic. At the Constitutional Convention, the Virginia Plan proposed that representation in the legislature be
based on either a state's population or its monetary contribution to the
federal government. The New Jersey Plan proposed an equal
distribution of seats in the legislature to all states. The compromise between these two plans, called the Connecticut Compromise,
established two houses: the House of Representatives, based on
proportional representation, and the Senate, based on equal
representation.

The Senate is an anti-democratic institution (senators were appointed by state legislatures rather than popularly elected. The 17th Amendment provided for the popular election of senators). It is also anti-democratic because of equal representation. Sparsely populated states in the "big empty" of the middle of the country enjoy a disproportionate amount of power, allowing a small number of citizens to thwart the popular will of the vast majority of American citizens concentrated in our urban centers.

As Ezra Klein has noted, the senators who blocked the Manchin-Toomey background checks bill represent only about a third of the country’s population. This is not your founding fathers’ Senate:

I noted that of the senators from the 25 largest states, the
Manchin-Toomey legislation received 33 aye votes and 17 nay votes — a
more than 2:1 margin, putting it well beyond the 3/5ths threshold
required to break a filibuster. But of the senators from the 25 smallest
states, it received only 21 aye votes and 29 nay votes.

In the New Republic, Jon Cohn and Eric Kingsbury run the numbers a different way, but reach a very similar result.

* * *

The key to all this is that the undemocratic affect of the filibuster is
layered on top of other undemocratic features of the Senate, like the
small-state bias and the lengthy election cycle.

The Senate has always disproportionately represented small states, but the bias hasn’t always been extreme. You can’t understand what’s happened to the Senate without these two graphs:

One good proxy for the disproportionateness of the Senate is the
ratio of population between the largest state in the Union and the
smallest state. I went back through every Census from 1790 and 2010 and
found that ratio. In 1790, Virginia, the largest state, was 12.65 times
the size of Delaware, the smallest. In 2010, however, California, the
largest state, was fully 66 times the size of Wyoming, the smallest. The
Senate is now about five times less proportionate than it was at the
country’s founding.
And that’s not even the worst it’s gotten. In 1900, the largest
state, New York, was a shocking 171.7 times the size of the smallest,
Nevada. An individual Nevadan had 171.7 times the influence of New
Yorkers in the upper house of Congress.

[Graph not included]

Another way to look at this is to ask what is the smallest population
a majority of senators could represent in a given year. The way to
calculate that is to divide the states in half by population, sum the
populations of the smallest half, add the next largest state (so you
have a majority, not just half; with an odd number of states you can
just round up from the half figure), and then see what proportion of the
total U.S. population that is.

For example, in 1790 we had 13 states. If all the senators from the
seven smallest states voted the same way, they’d have a majority. Those
seven states’ populations, however, accounted for 27.4 percent of the
population. With every state we add, the proportion of the population
needed to pass stuff through the Senate has, generally, fallen, until it
reached its current point of 17.82 percent:

Senate_disproportionate_23

That’s right: If senators representing 17.82 percent of the population agree, they can get a majority in the 2013 U.S. Senate. That’s not the lowest that figure has gotten (it hit about 16.8 percent in 1970) but it’s about there. And this doesn’t even take the filibuster into account. The smallest 20 states amount to 11.27 percent of the U.S. population, but if all of their senators band together they can successfully filibuster legislation.

You can see all the data represented here in this spreadsheet.

Demographics has strained our constitutional system of government that the Founding Fathers established. They could not have foreseen that the compromise they adopted held the seeds of its own destruction.  

Proportional representation in the Senate, perhaps more than 100 senators, is something which ought to be seriously considered and proposed as a constitutional amendment. It deserves debate. "The Constitution is not a suicide pact." That is why it provides for a method of amendment to fix what is broken.

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