Is it Time to End the Connecticut Compromise?

"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.

Tags: Governance Issues, US History, US Senate (all tags)



Re: Is it Time to End the Connecticut Compromise?

I'm tired, so I have nothing smarter to say than "Hallelujah"!

The framers could have never envisioned the size of the newer states, nor the population disparities.  The result is absurd and awful... and permanent.

by mikeinsf 2009-12-12 12:36AM | 0 recs
Re: End the Connecticut Compromise indeed.

Ideas I've heard:

1. Abolish the filibuster. It doesn't completely solve the problem, but would at least ensure that it would take at least the Senators representing 17.8% of the population to thwart the will of the rest of us. 2003 Census data shows the smallest 21 states (WY,VT,ND,AL,SD,DE,MT,RI,HI,NH,ME,ID,NE, WV,NM,NV,UT,AR,MS,IA) only have 11.2% of the total US population but they elect 42 Senators. And most of those 21 states are rural and conservative.

2. Abolish the Senate. Good idea if we can amend the Constitution.

3. Change the way Senators are elected. One idea would be to have it filled the way parliaments around the world are by party list. For example, if the Green Party could collect 5% of the nationwide vote, then it would get to appoint 5 Senators from its list. This would empower third parties and particular ideologies, and provide a good balance to the geographical representation of the House. This would also require amending the Constitution.

4. Increase the number of Senators to 200 or 300. Right now, the illness or death of a Senator can drastically sway the dynamics. Also, each Senator has way too much power and so little fiefdoms develop. Increasing the size of the Senate would reduce the power and influence of each Senator.

5. Make the District of Columbia (excluding the actual federal government district that surrounds the Capitol and White House) a state. DC has a larger population than Wyoming. Making DC a state would require votes similar to amending the Constitution.

6. Combine some of these ideas. So, perhaps there could be a total of 300 Senators -- two from each state plus 200 selected by parties based on their nationwide vote total. Or a total of 200 with each state having one Senator plus additional Senators proportional to their population. So Wyoming would have one Senator and California would have 12 or 13. Making these changes would also require amending the Constitution.

And while we're considering amending the Constitution: The president also has way too much power and why should he be appointing judges?. Let's shift the power to appoint Federal judges -- including Supreme Court judges -- to the House of Representatives and then have the Senate confirm them. Or, alternatively, elect a special Appointer every 4 years -- alternating with presidential elections --  whose only job is to appoint judges that then must be confirmed by the Senate.

by RandomNonviolence 2009-12-12 07:18AM | 0 recs
Another idea

This one would not do anything for the Senate, however, it would benefit democracy in general:

Increase the size of he House of Representatives.  It could be increased to a maximum of around 10,000 constitutionally (maximum of one rep per 30,000 citizens).  A 10,000 member body might be unwieldy, but how about a HoR of 1000 members.  You can get rid of some of the disparities such as Wyoming and Delaware having the same number of reps even though there is a pretty big discrepancy in the population of the two


if we aren't going to get rid of the electoral college, at least we can reduce the influence of the unfairness of having small states disproportionately representated in the college.

The best thing is that it's the HoR that determines the size of the body (up until the 1 per 30,000 maximum), and wouldn't require a constitutional amendment, Senate approval or a presidential signature.

by Khun David 2009-12-12 10:18AM | 0 recs
Re: Is it Time to End the Connecticut Compromise?
I think the institution brought us this far. So perhaps the problem of reorienting the senate to be less corprate enabling and more countries best interests enabling, is to finally do election funding reform! If they owe their ass to the cporp dopnors they will do their work to save their ass. End of story.
ps- They say we keep Lieberman because of all the votes he casts with us. Like we wouldn't get those from a freshman Dem who replaced him???
And the freshaman wouldn't run to the enemies side and yell back how we are troop hating terrorist loving traitors. While exp[ecting to hold chairs of honor.
by CutAgWelfare 2009-12-12 01:31AM | 0 recs
If not for the Senate

we would've been able to do so much more, so much faster.

The WPA didn't even pass the Senate in the 30's...Roosevelt had to use a backhanded abuse of power to get it inacted.

by ND22 2009-12-12 04:36AM | 0 recs
Re: Is it Time to End the Connecticut Compromise?
We need to end the direct election of Senators.  That will put a stop to all the money nonsense.  If they take any money, it will be seen as a bribe since they aren't running a reelection campaign.  The direct election of senators is the most pernicious result of the "Reform" Era.  It was framed as being more democratic (small d) but the result was that popularly elected governors or legislators no longer chose the states representatives and the big money people have been buying Senators ever since.  
Combine the repeal of direct election of senators with a chnage in reapportionment of representatives and that will go a long way to correct the gridlock we see in Congress.
by Demo Dan in Dayton 2009-12-12 04:28AM | 0 recs
Then how do you elect Senators?

Go back to state legislatures picking them? I don't know man, have you seen the state legislatures in New York and California lately?

by ND22 2009-12-12 04:32AM | 0 recs

Our form of Government has worked relatively well for well over 20 years. The problem isnt the institution, its the people we elect to it. I  have said this time and time again. How stupid is the general voting public to keep electing people like Pelosi, Rangel and the like, yet expect different results. These people are corrupt to the core. They are millionaires who have not a clue what hard working americans endure each and every day.

However, the suggestion that we do away with the Senate is just plain stupid. And the notion it could ever be done is dumber yet. This republic has lasted and succeeded for this long and will continue to do so. The answer is to stop electing these same people year after year. They have no clue nor interest in our lives, only to remain in power. The next time the entrenched incumbent is up for re-election the answer is simple. Vote for their opponent. If we keep booting these people from office, their successors will eventually get the point.

by BuckeyeBlogger 2009-12-12 04:31AM | 0 recs
Re: No

Our form of Government has worked relatively well for well over 20 years.

Oh, is that why we're in the situation we're in now.

How stupid is the general voting public to keep electing people like Pelosi, Rangel and the like, yet expect different results.

We're talking about the Senate, Pelosi and Rangel are in the House.

The answer is to stop electing these same people year after year. They have no clue nor interest in our lives, only to remain in power. The next time the entrenched incumbent is up for re-election the answer is simple. Vote for their opponent. If we keep booting these people from office, their successors will eventually get the point

what point would that be? that you have one term to screw the people, only to be replaced with someone else who has no interest in helping the people?

by ND22 2009-12-12 04:35AM | 0 recs
Re: No

because they are all corrupt.....simple as that

by BuckeyeBlogger 2009-12-12 07:31AM | 0 recs
Is this supposed to be an answer?

by ND22 2009-12-12 08:41PM | 0 recs
Re: No

Your right, its a type, I meant 200 years. And anyone as stupid as you seem to be who thinks it hasnt worked well for over 200 years is well....just plain stupid

by BuckeyeBlogger 2009-12-12 07:31AM | 0 recs
Things could work well for a long time

and then suddenly no longer work...our government was designed to work when everyone is legislating in good faith...since half of Congress has ceased to do that, it no longer works anymore.

by ND22 2009-12-12 08:50PM | 0 recs
Re: No

You comments are self serving. You talk a bout people in the House, which arguably is more representative of the people, as the problem. But ignore the anti democratic impulse of the Senate. There are things that we can do to make the Senate more democratic as I write below. However, this idea that it is about the American people being stupid is false. Even with the House, it can be made more representative by adding new districts and reducing the population size in each district. Right now, it is being kept artificially low by both parties to prevent the rise of viable 3rd parties like the working family party or the greens. Both parties are rigging the system, and that in a nutshell is the problem. It prevents new voices like times like this that are moving the country in a direction that the status quo corporate interest do not like. The present structure allows for gaming. Going to public finance, reducing district size by increasing the number of represents, going to run off elections, etc, would all reshape ameircan politics away from corporate interest.

by bruh3 2009-12-12 08:19AM | 0 recs
Off-topic, but...

...I'm impressed that you've managed to miss Indiana. The state boasts of itself as the "crossroads of America," but it's not far from the truth, especially if you're just considering America east of the Mississippi. It's on the way to everywhere!

by aaronetc 2009-12-12 04:50AM | 0 recs
Re: Off-topic, but...

Even more bizarre since two of my closest friends from college are from Kendalville and Fort Wayne. Closest I've come is Chicago.

by Charles Lemos 2009-12-12 07:18AM | 0 recs
but in practical terms

It's impossible to abolish the Senate (every single state must approve) but it is possible to change the arcane rules. In practice, there is enough variety in the small states that they don't vote uniformly.

by John DE 2009-12-12 05:51AM | 0 recs
Re: but in practical terms

You're both right.

The last clause of Article V states: ". . . and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate."

So any amendment abolishing the Senate would also have to remove that clause, lest all the states would have to vote to ratify the amendment.

by jmstarnes 2009-12-12 06:10AM | 0 recs
Re: but in practical terms

I think it is absurd to believe that that provision could be amended simply by that sort of two-step trick.  You'd make it a nullity.

by Steve M 2009-12-12 06:39AM | 0 recs
Re: but in practical terms

Perhaps, but you would certainly need to address that clause if you wanted to disband the Senate. And you would want to be thorough because I think it would be difficult to predict how the Supreme Court would resolve the conflict.

by jmstarnes 2009-12-12 06:58AM | 0 recs
Re: but in practical terms

No state shall be denied equal suffrage in the senate.

Well if there is no senate, then every state will be equal. It's won't be like DE and MA will continue to vote in the senate while WY and OH will not.

by vecky 2009-12-12 01:13PM | 0 recs
and the Senate itself.

by ND22 2009-12-12 08:51PM | 0 recs
Maybe not abolish the Senate

I'm not a fan of unicamerial legislatures...few democracies have them,

But severely decreasing it's power until it resembles the House of Lords or German Bundesrat.

by ND22 2009-12-12 06:13AM | 0 recs
Re: Maybe not abolish the Senate

I'm more thinking on the lines on which they are elected. Regionally or even nationally perhaps.

Certainly rural interests are now over-represented now.

And no doubt, this isn't the only problem. Perhaps a greater one is the role of money in politics. But the Senate compared to the House is dysfunctional.

by Charles Lemos 2009-12-12 07:16AM | 0 recs
I thought it was Dutch

I thought the word filibuster came from the Dutch vrijbuiter or freebooter.

by ND22 2009-12-12 08:53PM | 0 recs
Re: I thought it was Dutch

I think you're right.

It's not Spanish. The word "to kidnap" in Spanish secuestrar. From the same Latin root as "to sequester."

by Charles Lemos 2009-12-12 11:03PM | 0 recs
Re: I thought it was Dutch

You're right. I did not know that. I had always heard the Dutch vrijbuiter. But filibustero is in my Larousse as "el que se hace del botín libremente, un pirata."


by Charles Lemos 2009-12-13 05:54PM | 0 recs
Re: Is it Time to End the Connecticut Compromise?

Why don't we try to change some of the artificial restraints first like a) the filibuster and b) campaign finance that allows big money to buy Senators from states with smaller populations. These two reforms would do much to change the dynamic that you are seeing now.  

by bruh3 2009-12-12 08:14AM | 0 recs
Re: Is it Time to End the Connecticut Compromise?

There are also other things I would do to address the disparity between DC and the American public. One thing is to start to allow national votes on issues (even non binding votes would be helpful) on things like the public option. This way politicians in districts can not claim to know where the American public is on economic issues. I do not mean on con rights issue like they do in CA, but on strictly economic issues

by bruh3 2009-12-12 08:25AM | 0 recs
Not to mention

What states are over represented? WY, ID, SD...
 conservative rural whites.

Underrepresented? CA, NY..
Not to mention no voice at all for DC, guam ,etc

Non-whites have less of a vote. Though I guess its more than 3/5, so we haven't regressed that far.

by bay of arizona 2009-12-12 10:02AM | 0 recs
Re: Not to mention

There has never been a time in the history of this country when non-whites had 3/5 of a vote.

by Steve M 2009-12-12 11:52AM | 0 recs
Re: Not to mention

For representation purposes (i.e: how many house seats each state gets) blacks were counted as 3/5th instead of as 1.

So if SC for example had 3 million whites + 2 million black slaves their total population would be counted as 4.2 million. And the number of seats they get would be distributed accordingly.

by vecky 2009-12-12 01:17PM | 0 recs
Re: Not to mention

Of course, but you realize that's something completely different, right?

by Steve M 2009-12-12 02:07PM | 0 recs
Re: Not to mention

Than your pt yes, but bay of Arizona was talking about state representation.

by vecky 2009-12-12 02:33PM | 0 recs
Re: Not to mention

Perhaps I need to start adding more snark tags.

by bay of arizona 2009-12-12 03:12PM | 0 recs


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