Yes, the United States Senate is “Very, Very Unequal.” And that’s a good thing.
I normally love the kind of numerical/graphical analysis Ezra Klein does. So it was with great shock and frustration I watched him do his signature challenge while he was guest hosting the Rachel Maddow Show last Monday and he explained the Senate structure giving influence to less populous states as a bug, not a feature. (His shorter writeup post is up at the Washington Post here.)
It’s factually correct that the way that the US Constitution sets up the Senate, it decreases the proportional power of the residents of populous states in a major way. More so now than it did when the Constitution was first drafted (from approximately 11:1 to 66:1). He includes this big and shocking looking graphic showing the seemingly over-weighted influence the same population has at the federal level.
What he doesn’t really talk about is why the architects of our federal government would choose to create an inherently lopsided seeming system of representation. There was the idea that a number of checks would be required to ensure that risk inherent in democracy, the “tyranny of the majority,” was balanced. Small states feared (reasonably I might add) that because they were small their interests and needs would likely be swallowed if a majority of highly populous states ignored the need.
Our Constitution and federal government is structured in such a way to recognize that and mitigate harms. To protect individuals, we have the Bill of Rights, later amendments and a judiciary system to ensure that the rights of of individuals don’t get trampled. But what about the representation needs of people in less populous states? Well for that, we have the United States Senate.
A major function of government and taxation is to ensure that vulnerable and poor people in our population are given the support they need; it’s the “common welfare” idea from the preamble. But there is no reason why that allocation would be proportional by state. In fact, when you look at the states with lower populations, there is a decent correlation between states that are lower in population but significantly higher in terms of poverty and strained infrastructure.
What’s more, some states are burdened in ways others are not. As a concrete example, the Intermountain West has two things that either directly govern or highly influence every important aspect of life here: lots and lots of space and very little water. That reality means our populations are clustered around areas where we can find enough water to survive, mainly around mountain ranges with reservoirs. What does that mean? Lots and lots of infrastructure costs; without federal transportation funds, we couldn’t function in a modern way*. We rely on interstate highway corridors for transportation in a way that other states don’t need to. Does that mean we’re “making out like bandits?”
I don’t think so. States will smaller populations are going to necessarily have a harder time generating comparable tax revenue to cover the needs of their citizens than highly populous states with affluent urban centers. Okay you say, but what does that have to do with the original idea of super-lopsided representation in the Senate?
Imagine for a moment what it would be like if the Senate were proportional body like the House of Representatives. What would happen to the federal aid, infrastructure and other funds that small states rely on? Well, it seems safe to say that we wouldn’t get most of it. It’s a lot easier to ignore the needs of constituents of small, poor states with two or three representatives when their votes have zero clout and impact in how federal legislation is passed in D.C.
So stop telling Californians they should hate the Senate, Ezra Klein. It does what it’s supposed to.