The Peculiar Upper House

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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60 Responses

  1. Saul Degraw says:

    I don’t know if I would exactly consider New Hampshire and Maine to be blue states yet but they are becoming more and more blue but not quite at the fast pace of New York or California.

    New Hampshire and Maine are still bastions of old-school Yankee Republicanism and have plenty of old-school Yankee Republicans (though rapidly aging ones). They go blue in many elections but every now and then they freak out and say “Ahhh, we are old-school Yankee Republicans” and go R again. Maybe not in Presidential elections but certainly at the local and Senatorial level. This is kind of similar to when Andrew Sullivan seems to make a heated swipe against liberals, Labor, and the Democratic Party just to reassure himself of his old Tory-Thatcher-Reagan bonafides.

    Political party identification is strongly psychological. Hence the old refrain of “I did not leave the Democratic or Republican Party, the Democratic or Republican Party left me.” Note: I am sure I would do the same if the parties switched ideologies during my lifetime somehow.

    The bigger issue I have is disproportionate representation in the House. Democratic house candidates received more votes than Republican candidates in the 2012 election and the Republicans still held the house thanks to wrongly designed or partisanly designed districts.Report

    • I actually intend to write a post about the House, too. Though not about gerrymandering.

      I tend to define “red state” as one that has gone GOP in at least 3 of the last four presidential elections, and blue three of four in the other direction. They’re definitely a softer shade of blue.Report

      • Road Scholar in reply to Will Truman says:

        Classifying states as red or blue is about as much art as analytics it seems to me. Take Kansas for example. We haven’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1932, IIRC, and we’ve gone red for the POTUS reliably for fifty years. Yet we frequently elect Dems to the governor’s mansion and we seem poised to do so again (G-d willing).Report

      • I tend to define it primarily by presidential elections, since that’s from whence the map came (and I suspect if we ever get a national popular vote, most people will stop thinking of them by colors before too long). It is true, though, that there is a degree of nuance when it comes to other offices.

        In any event, the numbers presented here are independent of how we go about color-defining the states.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Will Truman says:


        Blue is the warmest color.Report

      • Kim in reply to Will Truman says:

        What I presume stops Kansas from being classified as like ND and WV, is that it’s legislative branch tends to be controlled by Republicans. Unless I’m wrong about that, in which case I’d be willing to toss it much closer to the blue column.Report

  2. Michael Drew says:

    So then I guess the relevant if massively ahistorical question in response to normative/contractual argument against providing for at least some degree of proportionality is whether the Madisonian side would have acquiesced if the population disparity then had been what it is today. Also whether they would have if they had understood how much a two-party dynamic ( a party dynamic at all) was going to come to determine outcomes in their system.Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

      …Also If they’d been assured of a firm 5/5ths approach to counting enslaved people for apportioning Senators instead of just the 3/5ths they’d presumably have been settling for for that purpose, given where things came down for the lower chamber.Report

    • My guess is that the big states would have pushed harder against it and the result would be a disproportionate Senate though one not as disproportionate as the one we currently have, or a Senate with fewer formal powers in comparison to the other house.

      An outside – though perhaps preferable – possibility is a different approach to statehood that granted large states greater latitude in splitting without congressional approval and would have taken a longer view of admitting less populated states into the union. Another possibility is differentiating between territories and giving some of them some representation in the legislative branch, but not full statehood representation. The latter two could help solve the Wyoming problem, but probably wouldn’t solve the Vermont problem. The first could solve the California problem, though, and California is more the problem than Vermont or Wyoming, in my estimation.

      I’ve been exploring this issue mentally in a post I have planned about what a constitution for the Western States of America might look like.Report

      • I should add that, truthfully, if I were designing a system from scratch I would probably be quite amenable to a sliding scale of disproportionate representation. Statehood gets you one, a million people gets you another, five million gets you a third, ten million gets you a fourth, twenty or twenty-five million gets you a fifth, fifty million gets you a sixth and every fifty million after that gets you another. (The last part probably being unnecessary, but you never know.)

        It’s all something of a moot point. Senate representation is one of the hardest parts of the Constitution to change of a constitution that’s notoriously difficult to change any part of.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Will Truman says:

        The thing about changing the Senate’s composition in the constitution being a moot point, though, is why I framed the question normatively. We can agree that 2-a-state is not going anywhere, but if we can also agree that, even taking the initial terms of the contract on board, it should change given changed assumptions, then the normative case for things staying the way they are starts to break down. In that case it becomes reasonable to look for ways to develop workarounds to the path-dependency-locked current terms of the institution’s constitutional rules, namely things like filibuster reform. If you agree that the current constitutional setup of the Senate should be changed, then it’s reasonable to expect you to be more supportive of changes to rules controlled by the actual members of the institution to offset that unbalance than if you don’t.Report

      • If you’re talking about “We can’t change the apportionment, but we can eliminate the filibuster and holds” then I might agree, though I’m not sure how much that means since you might be able to get me to agree with them with my drawn-from-scratch one.

        I also tend to think that the normative case against the Senate is actually not all that strong. And would be better remedied by giving the larger states more room to split up if that’s their desire (that I ultimately don’t think it is, is significant). It’s not how I would arrange things if drawing from scratch, but I think the existence of the current Senate is better than the complete absence of one (if that were feasible) in the form of a unicameral parliamentary system or a unicameral presidential one. So there may be agreement here, but it is relatively limited.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Will Truman says:

        …For my part I’d rather have a(n at least somewhat) proportional Senate and slightly stronger minority rights in one chamber (I’d still like some filibuster/block reform, but some anti-majoritarian check in one institution is good) than equal representation and no filibuster. But the Senate rules, not its composition, is what we have some choice about.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Will Truman says:

        It’s not really about whether you’d agree to it from scratch. It’s that, (if you do) think that the nonproportionality of the Senate is a normative problem for our current set-up, will you, in the actual world, therefore add a bit more support than you otherwise would give to reform to the actual-existing and changeable anti-majoritarian rules of the current, actual-existing Senate?Report

      • I get that, which is what I thought I was addressing in my first paragraph. To clarify: I’m not sure. Because the disproportionate representation of the Senate does make me more likely to support filibuster reform, but I don’t know if that counts because it’s something I might support under a more ideal formulation. So it may or may not be making a difference.

        I mention that my normative objection to the current composition of the Senate is weak because limits that as a justification for making other changes. So the amount of common ground we may have on the subject (of reforming what we can because we can’t reform what we can’t) is pretty limited, albeit not non-existent.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to Will Truman says:

        I think one can also infer that the people writing the Constitution definitely had in mind adding everything between the Appalachians and Mississippi river as multiple states, each more or less equal in area and population (in due time) as the existing gang of 12*. Otherwise the admittance mechanism would have been a lot different.

        Things started to go sideways with the Louisiana purchase, which then led to Manifest destiny and southern slave empire dreams. That plus post civil war industrialization (and a significantly weakened Democratic party) led us to different sizes and populations for states.

        *RI wasn’t in the conversation, as everyone knows.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Michael Drew says:

      I think they would have had to acquiesce or fail to create a new constitution. No other issue tied the Federal Convention up in knots as much as the issue of representation, and it nearly closed up shop over that disagreement. Giving in on equal rep in the Senate would have been total surrender for the small states (keep in mind that the status quo was equal reoresentation in a single house), while for the large states giving in on the Senate was only partial surrender. And from the perspective of Madison (and Hamilton, although he played only a small role at the convention), striking a deal was far more crucial than winning any particular point.Report

  3. Alan Scott says:

    I think you’re missing a lot by simply classifying these senators as Red and Blue, though. The problem with non-proportional representation isn’t that it means the chamber is filled by the wrong number of Republicans or Democrats. It’s that it’s filled by the wrong type of Republicans or Democrats.

    I’m just as concerned about the disparity between Vermont and Texas as I am about the disparity between Wyoming and California. As an example, look at this list of states with population below 2 Million:

    Under 2 million:
    (3)West Virginia
    (4)New Hampshire
    (23)Rhode Island

    Under 1 million:
    (10)South Dakota
    (5)North Dakota

    That number in parentheses is a ranking of how white the state is. While there are some clear outliers, the overall picture is that the list of the nation’s smallest states is also a list of the nation’s whitest states.

    Contrast to this list of the most populous states:
    Over 10 Million:
    (41)New York

    Over 7.5 Million:
    (32)North Carolina
    (39)New Jersey

    Again, a few outliers, but our nation’s most populous states are also many of it’s most ethnically diverse.

    And it’s not just race. There are a lot of reasons that I as a liberal Californian don’t feel like my interests are particularly well represented by Senate Democrats. And for that matter, I suspect that many of the nation’s republicans don’t feel like their interests are being represented by senate Republicans either.Report

    • Can I interest you in my western secession movement? While the fundamental reasons for why I think the 11-state West needs to leave are based on energy, I note that as of this moment the region is bluer than the country as a whole. That’s true even without California — the other ten states are split 23-23 on US House seats and 11-9 Dem on US Senate seats. Tack on Alaska and Hawaii (while still leaving out California) and the splits are 25-24 and 14-10.Report

  4. LeeEsq says:

    There would be fewer complaints about the Senate if Senate procedural rules didn’t give the minority party so many opportunities to gum up the works. Complaints about misappropriation in the Senate are really arguments against all the veto points in the American political system in the end. Liberals tend to favor a political system that make passing legislation easier rather than harder. Its why many would dearly love the United States to be a parliamentary system where the executive and legislature are going to be controlled by the same party or coalition.

    Liberals also tend not to place a lot of value in giving the political minority governing rights while conservatives seemingly place a lot of value in this, unless they happend to be in charge of all three branches of government. To the liberal worldview, losing an election means that you get to protest the majority by making noise and not much else.Report

    • Dan Miller in reply to LeeEsq says:

      @leeesq I think there’s a lot of truth to your comment, but I also think that Democratic Senators would fight tooth and nail to hang on to their privileges. Remember how hard it was to get even the most limited filibuster reform, and that only after the GOP completely abused the system. In this matter, Democrats in the Senate are very distinct from the liberal movement writ large. This also gets to @alan-scott’s excellent point–the people in the Senate are not a 1-to-1 mapping of the movement that elects them, even if they’re similar in some aspects.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Dan Miller says:

        Democratic Senators are not the same thing as liberal voters. When Democratic Senators are fighting for the traditional perogatives and powers, they are doing so as Senators rather than adherers of a particular ideology. The current Senate rules gives the individual Senator much more power over legislation than the individual Representative. Thats why many Democratic Senators are so resistant to changing Senate procedures even when they are clearly being hurt by them from a party standpoint.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to Dan Miller says:

        And it was also useful to the Senate Democratic Caucus have the power when Bush was in charge.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to LeeEsq says:


      Do you think liberals in general are so committed to this principal of majority rule that they would continue to value it if they persistently found themselves in the minority?Report

      • Barack Obama vigorously defended the filibuster in Audacity of Hope. I think it had less to do with the fact that he was a senator and more to do with the fact that he was planning to be a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president and knew what the voters he was courting wanted.Report

      • That said, I do think Lee is right about general dispositions. Absent immediate concerns, I do believe liberals would prefer a parliamentary system and conservatives more veto points.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to James Hanley says:

        James, if we are talking about liberal voters rather than Democratic politicians than I’d say yes. In the liberal blogosphere, only Jonathan Bernstein is known for defending the Madisonian system and nobody else really finds his defenses convincing or worthy. Most would like to get rid of as many veto points in our system as possible if not reform it to something more parliamentary, which we recognize is impossible. We do this knowing that it will allow conservatives to legislate easy as well when they are in political control.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        We do this knowing that it will allow conservatives to legislate easy as well when they are in political control.

        My experience has been that an awful lot of liberals who favor this approach seem to assume that in a properly structured system, conservatives would rarely if ever have legislative majorities. I’m not saying that all liberals think that way, and maybe it’s just an artefact of the sample of liberals I’ve known (and not all of them, of course).

        Or maybe I’m just cynical enough to doubt that any group would remain supportive of any system unless they benefitted from it frequently enough.Report

      • Alan Scott in reply to James Hanley says:

        As a liberal, I’m not that worried by the prospect of conservatives in control of a veto-point free system with regular and frequent elections that create a political body that represents the diverse views of the electorate.

        Under that system, if the conservative get power and do terrible things with it, they’ll quickly lose that power and the liberals can fix their messes. If they get that power and do good things with it, they’ll hang on to it, but they’ll also have done good things–I can’t complain about that too much.

        What I don’t want is a system where the minority party can throw a wrench in the works and then gain seats because the gears aren’t turning, which seems to be what we have now. I don’t want a party where one side can do a terrible job and get voted out of office, but the other side can’t fix the mess because of systemic inertia.Report

      • Kim in reply to James Hanley says:

        ahh, you are too optimistic! It is possible for the Republicans (or whomever we’re demonizing today — is it TheProgressives, TM?). to screw shit up so badly there’s really no fixing it.

        Debt default is just the beginning, after all.

        The downside to elections is that we’re asking Important People to put their trust in the American People’s ability to elect people with common sense.Report

      • Dan Miller in reply to James Hanley says:

        LeeEsq definitely has a point–if you look at the balance of liberal opinion-writers, opinion tilts heavily towards majoritarianism even if conservatives are in charge (for example, see this post by Scott Lemieux, which I feel is pretty broadly representative).Report

      • A piece from 2013 doesn’t tell us as much as a piece from 2005 would.Report

  5. morat20 says:

    Wouldn’t it be easier, to determine whether a party was ‘over’ or ‘under’ represented in the Senate to simply tally up the votes, by party by state, for Senator?

    If you come up with 150 million votes for Democratic Senators and 150 million for Republican senators, and the Senate is split 55/45 Democratic/Republican than you can point to a specific tilt. Now small state/big state is similar — “45 Senators represent 200 million people, and 30 represent 50 million” or some such.Report

    • Will Truman in reply to morat20 says:

      That’s what I did.Report

      • My bad, I misunderstood you. Since voting is winner take all, I don’t see why your model is superior to counting the votes is the states held by Republican and Democratic senators, which was what I did.Report

      • In any event, I don’t think anybody is contesting which party benefits from the apportionment of Senate votes.Report

      • morat20 in reply to Will Truman says:

        Eh, it’s not superior. It’s just…understandable. Simple. Probably not as accurate as other measures — it’s a complex issue, although the effects are pretty simple.

        One Senator might represent 38 million people or 500,000. One Senator might have been elected by 15 million Democrats or 150,000 Republicans. A 60 vote majority might represent the votes of less than half the people who showed up to the polls.

        And there’s reasons for it, good or bad or outdated or not.

        Just as interesting, to my mind, as the disparity in representation is the modern versions of the same problem — rural voters in states complaining that urban/sub-urban voters are making them irrelevant. Which has brought up everything from talk of secession to complaining that rural voters should get more representatives in state legislatures to keep them ‘equal’.Report

      • Meh. I have far less sympathy for rural populations within states. I am sympathetic to a Hawaii exception, but other than that, one man one vote.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to Will Truman says:

        Just curious, what do you mean by a “Hawaii exception”? When the population of a state is overwhelmingly concentrated into a single urban center? Or something to do with native sovereignty?Report

      • morat20 in reply to Will Truman says:

        I’m not terribly sympathetic either — but the same thing driving these people to talk secession or getting extra votes is what drove the original argument settled by the House and Senate representations.

        It’s being a minority, and aware that as a minority your ability to drive the agenda or alter the outcome is…limited…in any form of democracy.

        The Senate is not “one man, one vote” as noted — sometimes it’s 250,000 men, one vote — sometimes it’s 19 million men, one vote.Report

      • @kolohe I’d be willing to hear out arguments from the lesser-populated islands that without disproportionate representation they would not get sufficient state resources or attention. That too much of the representation would be for the betterment of residents of one island over the other.

        I don’t know whether I would actually make an exception or not, but by virtue of being a series of discrete geographical entities, it’s something of a special case. There may be others, but it would require more than county lines.Report

      • In the case of the US Senate, it’s one state two votes. State boundaries are, once set, not easily subject to political manipulation. Counties, cities, and so on typically exist by virtue of the state, whereas the states contain power apart from what the federal government gives them and have powers that cannot be revised without their consent.

        Or put another way, the USA is the United States of America. Texas is not the United Counties of Texas.

        There are few cases of states of sufficient size and population where I am not confident in a state’s ability to manage state resources and laws with a reasonable degree of equitability. There are some exceptions to this (like Hawaii), but in the event that a state becomes too big and unwieldy, I am amenable to allowing a state to split before I would support creating political units with unequal-by-population representation. The United States on the other hand spans two coasts, more than four time zones, and 300,000 people, so such things are of greater concern*.

        Also, and importantly: States entered the union, and allowed others to enter the union, with the one-state-two-votes rules in place. So seeking to preserve the disproportionate representation is more justifiable than county lines which were made more freely, are more subject to change, and typically not made with equal-among-counties representation in mind.

        * – Not to give future posts away, but I will at some point be writing a post on what a constitution of a western secession (like Michael Cain talks about) might look like. If the three Pacific states were to secede, you could do well with a one-house parliamentary system. But if you’re talking about the eleven western states, you’d need some sort of weighted upper house to prevent the whole country from being governed to suit California’s needs.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to Will Truman says:

        “That too much of the representation would be for the betterment of residents of one island over the other.”

        Thanks. Though, just to be clear, are you still talking about federal representation, or state level representation? If I’m reading wikipedia correctly, every state (except of course unicameral Nebraska) has its US Senate equivalent chamber apportioned by population, not by other attributes like, for example, county divisions.

        So it’s been the case since the 60s that rural interests anywhere in the US don’t get a special advantage in apportionment at the state legislative level.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to Will Truman says:

        For a concrete example, the failure of the Hawaii Superferry a few years ago indicates to me that neighbor island interests have sufficient parity in most fights with Oahu interests.Report

      • I was talking about in the state legislature. And yeah, what I’m talking about would not be constitutionally permissible. But I might at least be sympathetic in a way that I am not in most circumstances.

        Within the bounds of jurisprudence, I think states should either be unacameral or should use their second house for something different (like proportional representation).Report

  6. Burt Likko says:

    Sort of lost in here is the idea of the Senators representing the state, rather than representing the people of the state. In that sense, Delaware and Texas are co-equal members of the Union, co-equal sovereigns within the Constitution, and possessed co-equal majesty and respect before the law.

    Were there a greater sense of this being the mission of each individual Senator, we might see a great deal more devolution in the functions of government. We would also likely have seen both major parties overly organize to co-opt and gerrymander state houses of government much earlier in history than has actually happened — and IIRC, this was a facet of pre-Seventeenth Amendment politics, one which receded in importance after the Seventeenth Amendment and has really only been a focus of emphasis since about the mid-1990’s..

    A tougher problem is what to do about gerrymandering, as this is the principal tool with which disproportionate partisan results are crafted.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Burt Likko says:

      The Senators never really did a very good job of representing the interests of their states during the period before the 17th Amendment passed Congress. Many Americans felt that they basically represented the interests of the rich people that helped them get elected to Senate. You can see some very pointed political cartoons from the late 19th and early 20th century that basically show that many or even most Americans thought that the indirectly elected Senate was a tool of the corporations.

      Political scientists dispute how harmful gerrymandering is to disapproportionate allocation of seats. The consensus seems to be that it doesn’t really matter much because the vagaries of geography would help Republicans anyway.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to LeeEsq says:

        The real theoretical problems with gerrymandering are that it allows politicians to choose their constituents, rather than vice versa, and that it makes elections less responsive to changes in public mood.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to LeeEsq says:

        If we want senators to actually represent states they need to be proxies for the governor or the legislators need to be able to recall them. The fact that they served fixed terms fulfilled the “more deliberative body” function (or tried to) at the expense of representing the states themselves.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to LeeEsq says:

        If we want senators to actually represent states they need to be proxies for the governor or the legislators need to be able to recall them.

        This was tried early on in some states when elections changed control of the state legislature. There was some confusion for a time, but the fixed term won out.

        I think it’s fair to say the Framers didn’t see the conflict they’d built into that system. But the small states were more concerned about having some equality than they were about representativess of the state government per se, so that issue seems to have been overlooked. And the conflicts were resolved fairly early in our history, without bloodshed or even a really wracking consitutional debate, so in the end it was pretty small potatos.Report

    • Kolohe in reply to Burt Likko says:

      “We would also likely have seen both major parties overly organize to co-opt and gerrymander state houses of government much earlier in history than has actually happened”

      The run between the 17th amendment and the era of court mandated majority-minority districts (i.e. 1990)* was characterized by
      1) the Republicans completely ignoring the 1920 census, which was in its own way, gerrymandering on steroids.
      2) a decade later, the rise of the New Deal political coalition, merging the machines of the Northern and Midwestern cities with the Solid South, giving the Democrats overwhelming advantages over Republicans at many levels of government, so gerrymandering wasn’t even necessary
      3) The post-WW2 New Deal coalition fracture, (and the rise of suburbia, the spike in crime, and the seismic shift of civil rights) and three decades of very heterogeneous political parties. And very competitive ones, leading to parties that mostly eschewed overreach (and jiggering with the system) when they happened to be in power. (there was also a more general comity among the political class due to the shared experience of fighting in WW2)

      So I don’t think the 17th amendment had as much to do with the temporary decline of gerrymandering as other political factors and internal geographic migrations.

      *what I mean to say here, is that the GOP found a golden opportunity in the creation of majority-minority districts, which concentrated what would now be called Blue voters in specific districts what would now be called purple states, tilting the rest of the playing field towards the GOP. This was a key underlying factor in the 1994 Republican House takeover. After that, the Blue-Red divide made aggressive gerrymandering increasingly attractive for whomever held the state legislature.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Lift the limit of 435 congressmen in the House and appoint one congressperson for each X Persons in a state and round up if (when) you need to.

      X should be something like what it was back in 1911, when the apportionment law was passed. Gerrymandering will be made nigh-impossible.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to Jaybird says:

        With computers, it can be done.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Jaybird says:

        You’d need to get rid of districts and elect the top n votegetters.Report

      • Dan Miller in reply to Jaybird says:

        Maybe I’m completely off-base here, but it seems like it might get even easier than it is now. With smaller districts, you could have more of them that packed in supporters of one party or the other, leaving the voters of the other party more spread out. It’s probably easier to draw a bunch of 50,000 person districts that are all 80% Dem or GOP than one 500,000 person district that’s 80% one-party.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to Jaybird says:

        There would definitely be greater partisan variability even without gerrymandering. Might be harder to pinpoint larger numbers of 60% districts, which is what gerrymandering is really about.Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to Jaybird says:

        With computers, it can be done.

        At least in several western states, probably only once, and possibly not even that. Voters in California, Arizona, and Washington, for example, have taken Congressional redistricting largely out of the hands of the legislature. Colorado hasn’t gone that far — yet — but the state constitution lays out criteria which must be honored, like compactness and keeping cities whole as much as possible. Extreme gerrymandering is a strategy with a limited lifetime in states where it’s easy to get constitutional amendments on the ballot, because independents and the minority party probably have enough votes together to pass some much less partisan arrangement.Report