The Senate Is Broken

Much as I hate to give credit to the Trump Administration for anything, I will (grudgingly) admit that its prolonged insult to the rule of law and simple competence made it impossible for the majority of Americans to continue ignoring the structural failures that facilitated its numerous offenses. Among those structural failures is the U.S. Senate.

As a report from the Guardian recently explained:

Critics of the US Senate say that for years now, the chamber has not been a field of fair democratic play, paralyzed by its own internal rules and insulated from the popular will by a 230-year-old formula for unequal representation.

Instead, its critics say, the Senate has become a firewall for a shrinking minority of mostly white, conservative voters across the country to block policies they don’t agree with and safeguard the voter suppression tactics that shore up Republican power.

The numbers are staggering.  Democratic senators represent approximately 40 million more voters than Republican senators–a disproportion hardly reflected in the Senate’s 50-50 split, a split that depends upon Kamala Harris to wield a tie-breaking vote.

By 2040, 70% of Americans are expected to live in the 15 largest states, and to be represented by only 30 senators, while 30% of Americans will have 70 senators voting on their behalf, according to analysis by David Birdsell of Baruch College’s School Of Public And International Affairs. The Senate has counted only 11 African American members in its history, out of almost 2,000 total.

The article provides several graphs that show the growth of disproportion, and they are visually stunning.

More than two centuries ago, to incentivize small states to join the union, the framers of the US constitution gave every state two senators, an arrangement that has always left some citizens vastly overrepresented in the body. But not until recent decades did a clear partisan split emerge in which Democrats were far more likely to represent bigger states, while Republicans represented many small states.

The trend has created an immense discrepancy in the influence that voters from less populous, mostly rural – and white, and Republican – states wield in the Senate, compared with voters from states with big cities and more voters of color.

A favorite example of how undemocratic things have gotten is a comparison between the state of California with the state of Wyoming. California has 70 times as many people as   Wyoming – but each state still gets two senators. As the article points out, that gives a small, conservative state the ability to counterbalance a giant, liberal state in any vote on energy policy, taxation, immigration, gun control or criminal justice reform.

America is unlikely to change from two-senators-per-state, but there are other reforms that would make it at least marginally more difficult for a minority to constantly thwart the will of the majority. The current effort to eliminate the filibuster–or at the very least, return it to its former operation–is one. As it is currently used, it allows–even encourages– the Senate minority to block almost anything favored by the majority.

The filibuster has historically been used by both parties in different ways, but it “has always been used to block measures that would lead to racial equity and justice”, said Erika Maye, deputy senior director of criminal justice and democracy campaigns for Color of Change, a racial justice advocacy group.

“It’s been used to stop anti-lynching bills, to uphold the racist poll tax, to delay civil rights legislation – and more recently healthcare, immigration and gun violence reform,” Maye said.

The bottom line is that the disproportionate power exercised by rural states translates to disproportionate power for white voters. In a 2018 column, David Leonhardt calculated  that there are 0.35 senators for every million White people, versus 0.26 senators for every million African Americans and 0.19 for Hispanic Americans–a calculation that prompted Times opinion editors to brand the Senate “affirmative action for white people.”

There’s a reason the federal legislature fails to pass even measures that are popular with all voters–Republicans and Democrats alike. The absence of “one person, one vote,” and America’s current failure to deliver even remotely democratic self-government, leaves policy firmly in the hands of the plutocrats and their GOP supplicants.


  1. On a rather dreary morning that inspires pessimism for a brighter day ahead, Sheila’s sage argument for the state of affairs of our Senate seems appropriate and thought provoking. With the agricultural revolution of application of new technology to bring in the harvest, fewer hands are needed to feed the insatiable diet of burgeoning urban centers. Population shifts understood, leading to voter power disparity among regions in our nation. So who is our enemy that puts food on our table?

  2. I must have gotten it wrong back in my school days. I was under the impression that those in the Congress represented the “people” according to population, and those in the Senate represented the “states”, each the equal to the others.
    Would this even be a topic this morning if Democrats were in the clear majority in the Senate?

  3. This has been a topic of conflict since the founding fathers gathered. I agree that the numbers are WAY out of whack. What are the suggested alternatives? We should start by greatly amending or eliminating the filibuster. That would improve things right away.

  4. The Senate is indeed broken and the wrecking ball is Moscow Mitch McConnell. It is the Republican party who sells crooks and idiots to the naive American electorate that fills the Senate with incompetent, corrupt and backward-thinking fools. S one of them may even be treasonous.

    Ron Johnson apes the disinformation screeds directly from his presumed pen pal, Vladimir Putin. What was he doing in Russia a few years ago with other Republican Senators? Were they exchanging soup recipes? Johnson is no Senator. He is a Russian stooge just like Trump, Flynn, Kennedy (Sorry, Sheila) and a host of other Republicans. If they are disseminating the Russian disinformation message to create chaos and division among us, doesn’t that make them complicit in, at least, sedition?

    The Senate is broken because it is populated with too many bad and criminal members.

  5. Thank you Theresa! Where is it written that one Senator can run the Senate to please himself, whether he is in the majority or the minority? Where is it written that that one Senator can continue virtually running the Senate and stop progressive action and presidential nominees to somehow maintain control in the name of the minority party in all three branches of government? The Senate still resembles the Family run by Charles Manson and we are still not free of Donald Trump’s White Nationalism and now must guard against unfettered domestic terrorism while trying to survive the Covid-19 Pandemic? Those told to”stand back and stand by” are not inactive as they appear but are just waiting for the call to return to action as we wait for laws to catch up with domestic terrorism.

    “There’s a reason the federal legislature fails to pass even measures that are popular with all voters–Republicans and Democrats alike. The absence of “one person, one vote,” and America’s current failure to deliver even remotely democratic self-government, leaves policy firmly in the hands of the plutocrats and their GOP supplicants.”

    That “reason” has a name and that name is Mitch McConnell. He is currently using “filibuster” as his rallying call to arms to the Senate and House Republicans to distract us from states passing voter suppression laws before the 2022 mid-term elections. The Senate has had its knee on the neck of America since 2010.

  6. Vernon, remember that all of those bad and criminal Senators were elected and reelected by their states’ voters. Until the people take their role in our government more seriously, we are doomed to this idiocy.

  7. The power that small state senators wield and their bludgeoning use of the filibuster along with the ridiculously undemocratic electoral college, and the overrepresentation that allows for rural white areas, along with overly self important individuals such as Joe Manchin, we have proven that we do not live in a democracy, we do not live in a majority rule society. A society where the majority must always pick up their gauge for the sake of magnanimous and altruistic conduct while the minority continues to remain spiteful and malignant under the self-deluded vindictive banner of self-righteousness to the detriment of all (majority of) citizens!

    Too bad folks like our beloved West Virginia Sen., can’t see any farther than his self-importance (amongst other things) to bring about true sea change in government. So, something has to give, something will give, and when it does, it will be an uncontrolled chain reaction that nobody will benefit from. Manchin is just a microcosm of what is wrong in this form of government. A person that expects magnanimous behavior from everyone else but refuses to be magnanimous themselves! Everyone else must pick up their gauge that has been cast as they refuse to do so themselves, true hypocrisy, which is a sure sign of societal decline that has happened time and time again throughout history and brought powerful civilizations to their end!

    Outside interlopers peering through this country’s very opaque windows recognize this very thing, hence Vladimir Putin and his election shenanigans, in conjunction with those in the minority willing to burn it all down just to own the Libs and keep their knee on the neck of majority! Unless something appears to snap everyone out of their self-induced hypnotic trance, a trance based in an alternate reality, history will be proven correct once again.

  8. Only in the states does the minority have more power than the majority.
    Remember the impeachment votes. 57 to 43.
    The majority lost!

  9. Yes…the senate is broken. So what to do with a broken Senate? GET RID OF IT…! Revise the House to 1/3 staggered members for 4 year terms…not to exceed 2 terms !!!!!! Committees ???? GET RID OF MOST OF THEM….simple floor discussions followed by VOTING….

    Then we will have a unicameral legislative branch….NOT BiCAMERAL !

    Does this sound crazy to others….? Okay….this is only MY OPINION. Let’s see if history results in anything better….I’m all for it….but this same old moribund Senate….has got to go.

  10. main issue,is ignorance of the voter,and education. i was in discussion over the last few days with people of the working class,group of a few,some one on one.. mainly small buisness owners. many would never even engage in conversatiin about politics,because their set in today,in a pro trump world.
    but the conversation ,since the dust has somewhat settled since 1/6 has made the conversation more engaging,and some are listening and looking at the more news worthy sites ive passed on. since engagement demands facts,i push them to look and ask questions.smiles when i enter the buieness later,and a few jabs at the liberals as usual. but its getting some traction here in a few faces. many are not wanting to discuss the 1/6 breach in DC and i avoid the wound. but,the overall is about the stimulus and the people who,need them. since my former world was in innercity ny/nj metro area,50/60s and the ciivil rights era,ive never met a person here whoever witnessed those years ,much less engage in them. over a few years of this back and forth with a few,some are coming around to how the system is managed by those in office,and its beyond the so called their all corrupt,to discussing how,and why. reasons,and definitions are now discussed. some are seeing the so called republicans as anti worker /peoples rites and biggots elected by…its not hard for me to discuss who,and why the minorities are in the place where they are,and,by who..reality may get me some sour looks face to face,but the tongue is and why they think,later on is thier own decission,but,it got the ear shot effect. if the white voter needs the nazis and supremacist for a vote,we have lost a great deal of self worth eh? sometimes a shot like this is needed to shake up the conversation,and though its maybe somewhat,like a slant of denial of the holocaust in conversation,it sure open the thought process immediatly,and give some,maybe a time to relate on their drive home. the republiquans can say what they want,via second hand info,and fox news dominate world here,and the demos can write what they want,but the coversation isnt face to face,seems the ignorance prevails..try it, with those who deny the issues,its taken years to get some of these blood red voters,to actully find engagement a reality check..
    republican senator: hired/paid, lobbist/lawmakers for the corprate world,over the matter how.

  11. The FBI certainly has its hands full these days. How can they investigate all this corruption and remain loyal to our oligarchic system?

    How many Republican members of Congress and Senators participated in the planning and executive of the 1/6 insurrection?

    I’m still waiting for the update in the FBI presser. All of Trump’s cronies were caught lying to investigators or congress because the FBI had the phone records, so I know the dumbasses on the ground didn’t plan or execute the insurrection alone. They had lots of financing and help on the inside. Remember, all these Trump loyalists truly believed the Deep State committed a coup against their beloved leader.

    As Vernon and Sheila eluded, the Koch network has easily acquired 23-24 state legislatures, including their senators like Indiana. That’s all they need to control the Senate, which was their objective decades ago. It’s also why their coal-state Turtle is declaring war on the Democrats if they mess with the filibuster. It’s the tool they acquired to stop any progressive legislation regardless of the POTUS.

    To point out, the US ranks 25th globally on the Democracy Index. And with a free press ranked 45th and the laws being passed abroad, and soon in this country against journalists, I suspect it will decline even further.

  12. jack smith, I would have loved to be witness to your efforts with the maga crowd. You are better at it than I am.

  13. Anyone who expects the GOP (AKA the NAFP – New American Fascist Party) to change colors is smoking something. They are rats trapped in a corner, fighting for survival, keeping control by any means necessary. As long as the Democrats continue to fight the battle by fair and ethical strategies and tactics, we will continue to have these discussions about a government that will continue to fool some of the people all of the time.

  14. Phil, if you think the Senate is bad, you need to take a closer look at the House which is much more dysfunctional. There areseveral moderates in the Senate. There are virtually none in the House.

  15. Theresa, is absolutely correct in her observation.

    I remember when the D’s had a strong majority in the Indiana house of representatives. That was only made possible because of deeply gerrymandered districts. Democrats were not clamoring to get rid of gerrymandering then.

    I think because some rule change helps a particular side should not be the basis for changing that rule. It has to instead be that the rule is fundamentally wrong and doesn’t work…not that it favors one side over another. The latter can change. In 2017 and 2018, you know what blocked the Trump agenda when Rs controlled the House and Senate? The Senate filibuster.

    The Electoral College is an example. It favors the Rs now, but once Texas flips (which it gets closer to do every election), the EC will be a huge advantage for Democrats.

  16. The problem is that Republicans recognize that they as a party represent a minority in a democracy. They should wield very little power. They take advantage of their distribution among places in the country to gain disproportionate representation. They pass state laws that defeat the democracy that does not serve them. They gerrymander. They prevent federal legislation from even being considered by the Senate. They take advantage of the Electoral College as Putin did in 2016 through social/entertainment media to install Trump for a term.

    They play a broken system by using what is broken to survive to the end of disproportionate power.

    That can compare to a viral pandemic whereby a peculiar too tiny to even be seen chunk of protein can render a world of sophisticated giants paralyzed.

  17. I’m fond of going after two birds with one stone, and this looks like an excellent opportunity to do so. Instead of agonizing over how much power the smaller population states control, let’s work to tilt who controls, or at least votes, in those states. One way to do this would be to pass a reparations bill (Bird 1) which incentivizes blacks to take up farming in rural states with the financial assistance of the federal government and under the guidance of the Department of Agriculture. This would not only help populate those states with a more representative citizenry (Bird 2), but also improve on the failed post Civil War promise of 20 acres and a mule, and extend the intent of the Homestead act of 1862. By offering to purchase for a bit more than the land is worth, we could obtain all that is necessary for this idea to work.

    Yes the Republicans will kick and scream, but they will do that anyhow so let’s discipline ourselves to move forward even in the face of their whining.

    This is an idea, not a plan, but it seems to have the potential for redressing one of our most valid grievances – a democracy ruled by the minority. Moscow Mitch is meaner and less principled than any Democrat and perhaps wilier too, so if we fight him on his own ground, we lose. Let’s shift to a different battlefield.

  18. Paul K. Ogden – WADR – there are a number of “moderates” in House – we, CommonGoodGoverning, helped elect some of them: Conor Lamb, Elissa Slotkin, Dean Phillips, Elaine Luria, Kathy Manning, Carolyn Bourdeaux. Many of them, and others, are in the Problem Solvers Caucus (half DEM/half GOP) which are credited with having pushed passage of getting the $600 checks out last fall. And, during 2019-20, the House passed nearly 100 bi-partisan bills (with 10 or more GOP votes).

  19. The fundamental problem to be solved has its roots in the Greek agora via Jefferson, i. e., majority rule. I saw and heard the governor of California recently who used a somewhat different measuring stick from the one we typically use to describe the dilemma, i. e., states by the number – and pointed out that California has more people than twenty one states in toto which translates into two senators versus forty two senators. That’s, uh, majority rule?

    Does a rancher in Wyoming have any real concern with LA’s smog (even though he/she has equal voting power with California’s two senators in doing anything about it at the federal level), or is his/her chief concern what the feds want for grazing rights per acre on federal land? Parenthetically, does the smog-laden citizen of LA have any great concern for the costs of grazing rights in Wyoming? Doubtful, , ,

    Our House and Senate were copied from the English House of Commons and House of Lords, respectively. The House of Commons was elective and the Lords were appointed by the Crown. Madison, it will be noted, plumed the first Article in favor of the Commons and left the appointment of senators with state legislatures where they remained until becoming subject to the vote in the 20th century on grounds that they had become corruptly appointed by corrupt state legislatures. (With today’s Russia-visiting senators who are for overthrow of our government pehaps a return to corrupt state legislatures’ choices should be reinstated.)

    So what to do in view of the constitutional straitjacket we have voluntarily imposed upon ourselves? How can we, in short, make the Senate representative of the will of the people as expressed by majority rule short of a constitutional convention? To those who suggest that the Senate was designed to represent the states (if in fact such was the design), I here note that once senators became elective they represent people and that once they represent people the agora majority rule comes to the fore. The “state” doesn’t elect anybody; voters do.

    We have escaped other constitutional straitjackets via convention or carefully-tailored legislation, but I don’t know what to do with a 42-2 mismatch short of a convention, one the “small states” with their current advantage would never countenance. One last if difficult possibility is to live with the current system and elect progressive senators in the “small states,” a daunting task but worthy of effort if no other alternative is available.

    Any other ideas or approaches to solution of this flaunting of the agora rule? I’m fresh out.

  20. I don’t know what to do about the Senate – it is truly undemocratic, and yes, I would say that if the Democrats were in control. There should be no false equivalency. No democratic Senator started with the stated purpose of thwarting an elected President. Arguable, Bush was put in office by a 5-4 vote of a court where two of those five were appointed by the winning candidate’s father. No Democrat said that their purpose was to destroy his presidency.

    Fixing the filibuster is probably the best thing that we can do.

    One note on the question of how many people of X category are in Congress compared to their number in the population. Who says that only an X can represent X?

    In my life, I have been represented by John Conyers, Danny Davis, and Andre Carson. After they redistricted my home into the 5th District, I have had Susan Brooks and now Victoria Spartz. Was I not represented by those Black congressmen? Was I being represented by those White congresswomen? Read any of my comments here and you should have the answer.

    One last thing.

    Phil brought up that old panacea, term limits. I have to remind people whence that came.
    The people in WIllie Brown’s district loved him and kept returning him to the state assembly. People outside of his San Francisco district didn’t love him so much. What to do? Ah, make it illegal for people to elect him — term limits.

    Term limits is anti-democratic. It is basically people outside of my district telling me who can run in my district. I also have many examples of the utter hypocrisy among many Republicans who championed the cause. There was Michigan’s John “only two terms” Engler, who glided to his third term as Governor without any sense of irony. More on point is Judy “two terms” Biggert who represented Illinois 13th Congressional District. Her Chicago Tribune OpEd was entitled: “Ahem, on second thought…”
    OK the Republican leaning Trib probably wrote the title, but it was the gist of her OpEd on why she was going to keep running for re-election.

    Biggert actually had a point. It takes time to learn how to do anything. Legislating for something as complex as the US government isn’t easy. That is just to learn the basics. If you want someone who understands the government, who has learned some lessons on unintended consequences, who has learned where the small tweak will have the greatest effect, then you want experience. It doesn’t necessarily happen in two terms.

    We actually have an effective form of term limits – it is called elections. If you think you can’t change things with elections, ask Warnock and Ossoff.

  21. Great conversation and sharing today. Loved reading all your ideas.

    Until we can solve the overall structural equal representation issue, I can only think about how to live in a state, Indiana, which, as a “somewhat” rural and red state, has more partician power in the Senate than California.

    Indiana seems to be seeing an upsurge in people moving in to become Hoosiers. While it might be due to it being a Sports Capital, me thinks it might be because of availability of jobs and a lower cost of living, even pretty reasonable housing costs compared to many parts of the US.

    Perhaps all this influxing of New Hoosiers are not of the conservative, elitist, inherently biased (racially and otherwise), non understanding of interdependent nature of community and natural resources, mindsets. Maybe they might just be bringing the rest of us new waters to help change our polluted rivers of patrician political elitism. And at least one potential vote per “registered voter”.

    So let’s all get out and get everyone possible registered to vote, possibly help them to vote, and perhaps we can freshen our source of support for bipartisan governing.

    People like Jack Smith sound to be doing a lot of that furthering of thoughtful political action. Maybe we can look with some hope and faith in our futures, rather than relying on gloom and darkness.

    It depends upon which wolf we feed.

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