On January 3rd, Dylan Matthews of Vox wrote an article about the total number of votes that were received across elections in 2010, 2012 and 2014 to elect the current Senate. Matthews asserts that the reason for a wide margin in popular vote totals between Democrats and Republicans does not decrease the legitimacy of the the Republican majority, rather it highlights the problem of small states and the fact they have equal representation in the Senate. He uses this as a call to abolish the Senate, which he views as an anti-democratic institution.
Both Real Clear Politics and The Washington Post did excellent analyses of voting patterns and election year versus non-election year wins that took the wind out of some of the numbers presented by Matthews. That was great to tamp down some of the narrative around Republican majority legitimacy, however the real problem is not one of small states, rather it is that the Senate no longer serves its intended purpose.
The Senate of the United States Congress was never intended to be directly elected by the citizens of the state. As originally structured, The House of Representatives was to be elected directly by the citizens and represent the will of the people. Representation was based on population, which aligns with Matthews assertion and solves the problem of small states.
The Senate,was intended to be the tie between State and Federal government. Senators, two for each state, were to be elected by State Legislators and accountable to the same. The framers always intended that the State should have a vested interest in the legislative process and that the influence of the State governments in the Senate would be a check and balance on the central power of the Federal Government. As Stated by Madison the Senate’s role was “first to protect the people against their rulers [and] secondly to protect the people against the transient impressions into which they themselves might be led.” They used to model of the Constitution Convention and State Governor’s conferences of the Colonial era to develop this theory and until the 1850’s when growing tensions at the State level in the years preceding the Civil War caused long term vacancies in the Senate, the process seemed to work well.
Not surprisingly, the Populist Movement was a driving force behind amending the Constitution to provide for the direct election of Senators. The Senate and House both resisted this change and did not acquiesce until such pressure was put upon them by states requesting a Constitutional Convention, that they needed to act. I have wondered if in hindsight State Legislators and Governors would like to travel backwards in time and counsel their predecessors on what they actually gave away.
Since the passage of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, along with the 16th Amendment that gave the Federal government the power to levy an income tax, both passed in 1913, States have seen their ability to function with autonomy erode steadily with a proliferation of government agencies at the Federal level whose purpose and influence go far beyond the scope of the enumerated powers in the Constitution. Their combination has also allowed the implied powers clause to be interpreted in the broadest way possible by a central government and elite political class seeking to continually expand their power.
Think about it. Do you think a body of representatives accountable to the States would have willingly given up their power to oversee institutions of education within their states to the Department of Education? Would they have allowed establishment and funding of a Bureau of Land Management that owns and ineffectively manages millions of acres within sovereign states? How about the Department of Energy? The EPA? Do you think it would have allowed for the establishment of a federal income tax such that it impaired the ability of States to collect and appropriate their own revenue and instead of becoming dependent on the allocation of Federal dollars for essential programs? My guess is no.
Further as Vox, The Washington Post and Real Clear Politics all point out, citizens by their voting patterns have very little interest in elections in non-Presidential years. Interest and participation in the elections that select Governors and State Legislatures in non-presidential years are markedly lower. Given the power that has gravitated to the Executive Branch through the proliferation of agencies and regulation with the force of law, is it any wonder that individuals pass up the opportunity to participate in the process of electing those who represent them close to home? Do you even consider the endorsement of your Governor or State Legislator in selecting your Federal representatives? My bet is no.
The combined long term effect of these two amendments made Obamacare and Common Core possible. It made it possible to have a security apparatus that spies on its citizens in violation of the 4th Amendment and to have a standoff in Nevada over grazing fees.It makes it possible to limit free enterprise as in the case of Keystone XL.
Perhaps most disturbing, it has forced us to make the assumption that we as a geographically and culturally diverse nation are homogeneous enough to be governed almost completely from the center. More importantly governed through the will of the Chief Executive whose power has increased exponentially with the force of agencies and regulation. The agenda of the President is the most powerful agenda in the country and the marginalization of the voice of the State in Washington has created a Congress that either blindly marches along party lines or becomes a gridlocked institution of little efficacy when it opposes the Chief Executive. This is the problem that needs to be solved, not the problem of small states.