July 12, 2004
Current problems of U.S. Senate rooted in history,
says political scientist
By Jennifer McNulty
The electoral college isnt the only outdated political system
that should be overhauled, according to a political scientist who says
the antiquated ways of the United States Senate contribute to congressional
gridlock and thwart American democracy.
Daniel Wirls's book looks at the origins of the Senate before,
during, and after the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
The gravest threat to fair representation is the mandate that each
state elect two senators to the U.S. Senate regardless of population,
a system that has created perhaps the most unrepresentative legislative
chamber in the world, says Daniel Wirls, a professor of politics
at UCSC and coauthor of the new book The Invention of the United
States Senate (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).
The current system underrepresents racial minorities and overrepresents
the economic minority because it is weighted in favor of small,
more agricultural, and predominantly white states, says Wirls.
We have a system that gives California--population 36 million--the
same number of senators as South Dakota--population 755,000, he
says. Its a grotesque misrepresentation, and by all indications
its only going to get worse as people move out of the central
Wirlss book, coauthored with his brother Stephen Wirls, an associate
professor of political science at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee,
fills a gap in the historical record by telling the story of the origins
of the Senate before, during, and after the Constitutional Convention
of 1787. By immersing themselves in the historical debate around the
creation of the Senate and the precedents that were established in its
formative years, the authors discovered the roots of some of todays
most stubborn political obstacles.
Its like the electoral college, he says. We
saw after the 2000 election that it should be changed, but no one has
taken up the challenge yet. The Senate is similar. Its a very
distorted form of representation that has no justification in a modern
democracy. We would never design it this way if given the chance to
start over. I dont think the same thing can be said about the
House, President, or Supreme Court.
The formula for Senate representation was the product of a political
compromise more than 200 years ago and should be revisited, says Wirls.
Under the bicameral system, the Senate was intended to be a smaller,
more deliberative body than the population-based House of Representatives.
Senators would serve longer terms than their House counterparts and
would have greater executive responsibilities. The Senates system
of representation was designed to protect states rights, a notion that
Wirls contends was ill-founded at the time and has since become irrelevant.
During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, fearing that the largest
states would dominate the new federal government, delegates sought to
avoid undue influence by giving states equal representation in the Senate.
"Even then, it wasn't clear what states rights they thought might
be trampled, but they were fearful," says Wirls. "They thought
Southern states were going to get big, but they were wrong."
Indeed, the Founding Fathers considered a population-based formula
that would have granted each state between one and five senators, says
Wirls, who believes such a system would have been more socially just.
Many of today's political ills have institutional origins that date
way back, including partisan use of the filibuster to thwart legislation
and derail Senate consideration of presidential appointments. Such use
of the filibuster is an outgrowth of a formal mechanism called cloture
that was introduced during World War I to allow senators to limit debate
on a particular question.
"Ironically, a tool that was intended to increase efficiency has
become the most effective way to obstruct the Senate's business,"
says Wirls. "It entrenched the power of the few and gave even individual
senators a stranglehold on the legislative agenda."
Understanding the historical roots of contemporary problems can stimulate
discussion about ways to improve government, says Wirls. Although the
Senates mechanisms of doing business have unbelievably durable
consequences, he says, they are not immune to change.
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