Is it Time to End the Connecticut Compromise?
by Charles Lemos, Fri Dec 11, 2009 at 11:11:22 PM EST
"The use of the Senate is to consist in its proceedings with more coolness, with more system and with more wisdom, than the popular branch." - James Madison
The Connecticut Compromise, proposed by that humble cobbler and self-taught jurist Roger Sherman, was adopted on July 16, 1787. Sometimes also referred to as the Great Compromise, it gave this nation a bicameral legislature composed of an upper chamber, which we call the US Senate, to represent the interests of states and granted them equal representation of two Senators apiece in that august body and a lower chamber, which we call the US House of Representatives, to represent the interests of the people based on proportional representation. The upper chamber has since its inception been an aristocratic body. Even today, of its 100 members 66 are millionaires and of those all but a handful are multi-millionaires. That compares with the less than one percent of Americans overall who are millionaires. It thus should not be surprising that the Senate more so than the House of Representatives favors policies that largely benefit their class but not necessarily their own states or even the nation at large.
The Senate is an odd and singular legislative body by any description. Its creation puzzled Thomas Jefferson who was not one of the 55 Framers of the Constitution. At the time of Constitutional Convention that met in Philadelphia during the infernal summer of 1787, Jefferson was the American Ambassador to the court of Louis XVI. On his return to the United States in October 1789 to assume the post of the nation's first Secretary of State, Jefferson inquired of President George Washington, who had served as the Convention's chair, why the Convention delegates had created a Senate. "Why did you pour that coffee into your saucer?" asked Washington. "To cool it," said Jefferson. "Even so," responded Washington, "we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it."
The Senate is doing its cooling job so well that it has frozen the country in an Arctic state of permafrost. Whatever legislation does manage to seep through that sieve of a Senate is often so watered down that it is effectively worthless. It is then also not surprising that increasingly many are coming to see the Senate as a flawed institution that is putting at risk our ability to confront vast national problems. It is not just a question of increased sectarianism, though that is certainly a problem, but also one of institutional design. We seem to be headed for a Constitutional Crisis. Perhaps, we even require it because the present system serves no one, and certainly not the national interest. While perhaps not failed state, we are fast becoming a country that is falling behind on all sort of socio-economic indicators and metrics.
Among those who see the problem is Thomas Friedman, with whom I rarely concur. Friedman speaks in the New York Times of "paralysis." Another who sees the problem is Matthew Yglesias, with whom I generally agree. He writes over at Think Progess of a country that has become "ungovernable." Case in point is this week's latest development in our seemingly interminable health care debate whereby Senator Carper of Delaware has placed a "hold" on an amendment offered by Senator Dorgan of South Dakota to allow for the reimportation of pharmaceutical drugs from Canada. In response, Senator Dorgan is vowing to object to any other amendments being considered before he gets a vote on his amendment. Is this a Senate or kindergarten?
The Connecticut Compromise emerged from the struggle between the large states and the small states over the apportionment of seats in the Congress. The Framers from the start accepted the need for bicameralism - a two-house national legislature - they but disagreed strongly over how each chamber should be constituted. The larger states led by Virginia and Pennsylvania favored the "nationalist" principle of popularly-based representation, but the smaller states such as Georgia, Delaware and Rhode Island insisted on a "federal" principle ensuring representation by states. The states with smaller populations feared that if representation was solely based on population, the larger states would quickly dominate the new Congress. The proposal by Roger Sherman gave us a lower chamber whose representation is based on population and reapportioned once every ten years and an upper chamber every each state was awarded an equal number of delegates in perpetuity. The measure passed by the barest of margins, five to four, and yet the Compromise stuck and the Framers moved on to settle other contentious questions rather quickly and amicably.
Now I am sure many of you will speak passionately about the states in you live but none of hold you a Delaware, a Wyoming, a Florida or a California passport. Perhaps because I am foreign born or perhaps because I have lived in three states (New York, Rhode Island, and California) and have traveled through all but six (MS, NE, SD, SC, AK, and IN), I really don't see much difference between the states culturally. Frankly, the divide can be seen within a state between rural and urban districts as much as between them. I probably have more common with someone who lives in Atlanta or Houston than with someone who lives in Fresno or Ukiah. I may self-describe as a San Franciscan but I rarely invoke California as my home with any passion. Certainly in 1789, most in our fair Republic thought themselves Virginians first and American second - Thomas Jefferson certainly did - but in 2009 that sort of thinking is rare outside perhaps Texas and Alaska.
Today, this is our reality: Senators from the twenty-six smallest states, who according to the 2000 census represent just 17.8 percent of the nation's population, constitute a majority of the Senate. California, the nation's most populous state, has a population of 37.8 million while the population of Wyoming, the most sparsely populated, is just 532,668. That is, in terms of population, California is 70.9 times larger than Wyoming. And yet each gets the same number of US Senators. The largest disparity in population at the time of Constitutional Convention was between Virginia at 538,000 (of which 40 percent were African slaves) and Delaware at 45,400 (nominally a slave state but with very few slaves). In other words, the population gap was a mere 11.9 times between the largest and the smallest.
The Founders, of course, could not have foreseen such disparities developing in population nor the unequal representation that now afflicts us. This is not by only means the only problem with the US Senate - arcane rules come to mind - but it is an issue that merits a public debate. The majority is evermore being held hostage by ever dwindling few.
The coolness that Madison hoped for is certainly there but it now has chilled the healthcare debate for the better part of a year with precious little else getting accomplished; moreover the wisdom is sorely lacking. I am not quite sure the answer, but the problem is increasingly evident.