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Civics 101: An Equal Number of Senators Per State Is Undemocratic

As we began the unit on the Legislative Branch, “Mark” asked why California ranks in the bottom of receiving federal funding when we are the most populated state and the 5th LARGEST economy in the world.  “Julie” blurted out the Great Compromise, of course.  I said “Julie is right, remember class, unlike today, politics was the art of compromise.”

The Great Compromise was the first of the three major compromises to take shape in 1787.  The Framers created a bicameral legislature.  The House would be based on the population of each state, with more populated states given more representatives (the Virginia Plan).  The Senate would be equally apportioned with each state having two senators regardless of the state’s population (the New Jersey Plan).  Such a feature is not procedurally democratic because equal representation in the Senate equals unequal representation of citizens.  According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the most populated state, California, has a population of 37,253,956 people while the least populated state, Wyoming, has a population of 563,626 people.  Thus, California has 66 times larger population than Wyoming.  However, each state has the same number of senators, two.  Does this formula of inequality truly matter?  Is this feature of the U.S. Senate undemocratic?

Clearly, the answer is YES because the equal representation clause found in Article I, section 3 of the U.S. Senate violates the basic principle of political equality among citizens.  As stated by celebrated political scientist Robert A. Dahl “the moral judgment that we ought to regard the good of every human being as intrinsically equal to that of another, and therefore in arriving at its decisions the government must give equal consideration to the good and interests of each person.”  Each American citizen ought to participate in the political process as equals in regards to the process of governing.  Such is not the case with the equal representation clause in the U.S. Senate.  Americans who live in states with smaller populations like Wyoming and North Dakota have at least four political advantages than Americans who live in states with larger populations like California and Texas.

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The vote of a citizen in a small state counts for more in the make-up of the Senate than the vote of a citizen in a larger state.  A citizen in North Dakota with a population of 672,591 people has 37 times a greater vote and, therefore voice, than a citizen living in Texas with a population of 25,145,561.  Yet, both states elect the same number of senators.  This political inequality if further exaggerated because citizens in smaller populated states gain easier access to their senators; a citizen in Wyoming has a much better chance of accessing their senator than a citizen living in California.  In addition, senators and their staff from smaller populated states have more time to devote to constituent services and senators from smaller states are more likely to be in leadership roles in the Senate.

Such was the case in the leadership of the 112th U.S. Senate as the Majority Leader, Harry Reid (D-NV), and Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who represent states with a population of approximately 6.9 million people combined, almost 6 times less than population of California alone (2010 U.S. Census).  Such leaders are able to send money and pork projects easier to their states than other senators.  Similarly, federal expenditures clearly favor citizens in small states.  For example, Wyoming’s annual federal expenditures are a share of roughly $209 per capita compared to California’s share of $132.  Likewise, grazing rights, mineral rights, and farming rights, for example, clearly benefit smaller states than larger states.  In fact, the top five states that have received federal aid in 2010 were Alaska, Wyoming, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Vermont with a combined population of 5,068,000 people or .016 percent of the nation’s population, almost seven and a half smaller than the population of California alone.   As Dahl’s eloquently states, “on what general principle is a citizen living in Wyoming entitled to half again as much in federal funds as a citizen in similar circumstances who is living in California?”  Such is the case in the political inequality of the U.S. Senate, constitutionally ordained by Article I, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution, which again states, “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each state, chosen by the legislature thereof for six Years; and each Senator shall have one Vote.”

As we diagnosed the undemocratic problem, Mark asked: “what could be done about this?”  As the bell rang, I said “let’s find out tomorrow in class.”  In my next Civics 101 article I will address how can will remedy the undemocratic element of the U.S. Senate.

 

Dominic Caserta, a teacher at Santa Clara High school and Santa Clara Council Member, is running for the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors in District 4, which includes Santa Clara. He wrote this article for the Santa Clara Weekly.

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6 Comments
  1. Ben Stevenson 2 years ago
    Reply

    While I understand your thoughts I do think there is some flaws in your explanation. The first being that to view the Senate as undemocratic misses the point of creating the Senate. The Senate was never meant to be a democratic body. One could argue that American government in general was never meant to be democratic, but a national republic. As a republic the equal representation clause does fit more soundly into the contents of the Constitution.

    Two, you mentioned above:

    “The Framers created a bicameral legislature. The House would be based on the population of each state, with more populated states given more representatives (the Virginia Plan). The Senate would be equally apportioned with each state having two senators regardless of the state’s population (the New Jersey Plan). Such a feature is not procedurally democratic because equal representation in the Senate equals unequal representation of citizens.”

    The problem here is that the purpose of the Senate being represented equally in Congress was due, in part, to the face that the Senate was never meant to represent the people. It was meant to represent the state’s interest. With this in mind, the equal representation of the Senate would not be out of order. The people’s House (House of Representatives) is a reflection of the state’s population while the Senate is meant to be a reflection of the state government. This was the case until 1913 when the 17th amendment was passed. The direct election of Senators by the people made them more inclined to move to the will of the people instead of the will of the state. That was never the intention of Article I Section 3. It was meant to allow for the states to have ambassadors in Washington in line with other federalist principles that can be found in the Constitution.

    I would agree with you that under the current system it does seem that the Senate represents an unproportional number of people depending on the state, but the problem does not lie with the original language of the Constitution, but rather the 17th amendment itself. It it were to be repealed I believe that we would see the Senate return to it’s original intent. The bicameral legislature created by the founders would be what it was meant to be. A voice of the people and a voice of the states.

  2. David Smith 2 years ago
    Reply

    Ben Stevenson is exactly right! Thank you! and, thus I say repeal the 17th! Otherwise we have these sort of “Super Congresspeople” that is the perversion. The Senate is intended to represent the state as a state! Not a power lever for individual people working for some political party! Their political party is their STATE! It is the better organizational structure.

    • Sean Best 2 years ago
      Reply

      Yes I agree! Repeal the 17th Amendment and give power back to the states, the way it was intended. The ratification of the 17th Amendment radically shifted the balance of power, and the states ended up loosing their voice at the federal ‘table’. I recently heard that the liberal ‘scholars’ are starting to push the narrative that 2 senators per state in racist due to the larger states having a more diverse population and the smaller states being less diverse (higher white population). This idea is absurd based on the original intent of the senate. This is nothing more than a continuation of the progressive power grab that initiated the 17th Amendment in the first place.

  3. Greg 2 years ago
    Reply

    please proof read your work, otherwise good

  4. W. R. Knight 3 months ago
    Reply

    One way to fix it is to disband the Senate.

  5. Paul 1 week ago
    Reply

    The 17th Amendment should not be repealed. The House of Representatives is the “people’s house” and the number of House Seats/districts is in direct proportion to the population. The reason there are two Senators for each state is to allow ALL 50 states to have an equal say in the legislative process. If the number of Senators was based on population like the House. it would allow for radicalism to easily take hold of the legislative process. The entire point of having two chambers? The House writes/creates bills, and then pass them on to the Senate for their approval. Negotiations take place and a compromise must happen in order for the Bill to stay alive. If the certain states had more Senators in proportion to the population, there wouldn’t be any debate or compromise because State populations tend to vote for the same political party for both the House and Senate. Currently, Rhode Island has as much power in the Senate as California, and this assures any outlandish or radical legislation that could be written by the House of Representatives can’t simply be ramrodded through both chambers of Congress by the chosen political party of the day. It’s about states rights. A state such as Wyoming would have ZERO say in the legislative process if the number of Senators was determined by the population. For example: If California had 60 Senators and Wyoming and most of the fly over states had 2-5 senators, none of the States would have a say in the legislative process. The Founders were brilliant in knowing that the legislative process needed checks and balances to avoid radicalism in Congress. They also were aware that Legislation approved by California isn’t always good for the people of Idaho.

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