Thursday, December 17, 2009

The US Senate is a rusty tool to translate what voters want into law - and it shows

If we were starting from scratch and coming up with a way to figure out how to translate American votes into law, would anyone come up the United States Senate and the new rule that lets a minority of the body block anything they don't like?

The idea that the 500,000 people in Wyoming get as much say as the 5 million people in Wisconsin is laughable. If we were starting from scratch, would anyone really propose that as a reasonable way to run our government? What makes the people who live in Wyoming deserving of such incredible affirmative action?

If the US Senate is all about massive affirmative action for favored groups of voters (and it is -- the favored groups of voters happen to be people who live in states with low populations, some of whom are urban like Rhode Island and some are rural like Idaho), then we ought to apply that massive affirmative action to *different* groups of voters. How about racial minorities (4% today)? Or women (17% today)? Or people under 45 (1% today)?

I'm aware, of course, of the political deal cut in Philadelphia in 1787, and at the time, the deal was as progressive as it was revolutionary. And at the time, I would have been an absolute zealot in favor of the new Constitution.

But today, that political deal doesn't make any sense. We used to elect our state legislatures the same way. And in the 1960s, the Supreme Court outlawed the practice (the best decisions of the 20th century, by the way), because anything besides one person, one vote violates our rights to equal representation. Fundamentally. We need to do the same with the United States Senate and, as Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois likes to say (in a different context): "make the will of the people the law of the land."

With the new rule of requiring 60 votes to pass anything -- that's not what happened as recently as the 1960s when we created Medicaid when only 51 votes were required -- the power of these affirmative action voters is multiplied even more. Now, the 33 million or so people who happen to live in California -- the rural people, the urban people, the suburban people who all happen to live in one big state -- only get 2% of the vote in the Senate. And meanwhile, the same number of people who happen to live in the 21 smallest states -- the rural people in Mississippi, the urban people in Rhode Island, the suburban people in Delaware -- get the power to block anything they don't want! It is so ridiculous on its face that I think we tend to lose sight of how bad these rules really are.

The need for political affirmative action in the Senate for people who happen to live in small population states ended long ago. And Americans are suffering from not being able to get what they want and what they voted for -- look at the health care reform bill as a prime example -- as a result of our refusal to modernize our most powerful legislative body.

At the absolute minimum, the 60 vote rule (or better put, the 2% block rule, since roughly 2% of the American population can elect Senators who can veto anything from passing) should be eliminated.

Let the will of the people be the law of the land.

And if you don't like it what the government does? Have another election and change it!

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