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Thursday, October 29, 2009

This is why we can't have nice things: I've been thinking a lot recently about how the undemocratic composition of the Senate creates a major hurdle for progressive legislation in the U.S., and I was curious how this works in practice. The chart below takes the 2008 population estimates for all 50 states from the U.S. Census and checks the populations represented by the Democratic and Republican caucuses against their actual representation in the U.S. Senate. (Click to enlarge.)

As you can see, the distortion created by having two Senators from every state regardless of its population means that Democrats should have 4.2 more Senators than they currently do, and Republicans 4.2 fewer. (Since you can't have two-tenths of a Senator, the number is really five. But call it four.) This is to say that in a properly representative Senate, even if you kept the filibuster—itself an anti-democratic Senate institution—with 64 senators in the chamber Democrats would be able to pass their agenda easily.

But it gets worse.

The six problem senators on health care, the six most likely to support a Republican filibuster—Mark Pryor, Blanche Lincoln, Mary Landrieu, Ben Nelson, Evan Bayh, and Joe Lieberman—together represent only 3.59% of the total population of the country, which means that in a properly representative Senate the Democrats could lose all six votes and still beat a filibuster.

In short, it's the distorted apportioning of the Senate itself that is progressives' largest legislative problem. Article 5 of the Constitution makes it almost impossible to eliminate the Senate outright, but (as I wrote the other week) depowering and discrediting the legislative roadblock called the Senate should be at the top of the long-term political agenda for progressives. In the meantime, these population distortions will continue to dominate all political outcomes, and continue to thwart all progressive change.