by Charles Lemos, Mon Dec 21, 2009 at 01:50:11 AM EST
While Paul Krugman writing in the New York Times believes that the healthcare reform legislation now on the verge of passage in the Senate is "an awesome achievement," I do not share those sentiments. Though there is certainly much of merit in the bill, overall it is a Frankenstein monster of bill whose sum of parts more reflects the narrow and profane interests that are overrepresented in the United States Senate. I do agree with Paul Krugman that the Senate has become "ominously dysfunctional." It is an institution that no longer works for the American people, one that produces flawed legislation no matter which party is in control and an institution that does not serve the national interest but instead caters to those who have access.
First let me state unequivocally that you can replace all one hundred of the Senators currently serving in the Senate and you would still have more or less the same inferior legislative product being delivered serving the same narrow interests. The problem is quite simply a mix of its composition that favors rural, more conservative sectors of the country over the more populous, urban and more progressive sectors of the country and the arcane rules that govern the body plus the insidious role that corporate lobbying and other monied interests now play in the nation's politics.
I have noted in previous posts that the 26 least populous states in the country who form a majority in the Senate represent just 17.8 percent of the nation's population according to the 2000 US Census. While these 26 include states like Vermont, Delaware and Rhode Island, of the 26 states 15 voted for McCain and 11 for Obama in 2008 but if we go back to 2004 then 19 of these 26 states voted for Bush versus just eight for Kerry (OR, CT, RI, ME, VT, HA, NH, DE). The most populous of these 26 states is Colorado and the least is Wyoming with the bulk of the states being a mixture of Southern, Prairie, Mountain West/Far West or New England states. Of these four regions, three are overwhelmingly rural and conservative and account for 20 of the 26 states. The United States is not the only country with a legislative body that overrepresents rural interests. Thailand and Japan have the same problem and not surprisingly suffer from many of the same problems that we do. The question of whether Thailand is a failed state or not is one that many Thai now discuss.
As the Republican Party is favored by rural and conservative interests, it too is overrepresented in the Senate though not to the extreme shown above. The GOP has 40 Senators at the moment but those seats represent just a fraction above 35 percent of the US population. Still that's an over-representation of 5 Senate seats, not an insignificant number in a 100 member body.
The composition of the body has subtle effects in perhaps unexpected ways. Since 1961 the Majority leaders in the body have come from Nevada (Reid), Tennessee (Frist), South Dakota (Daschle), Mississippi (Lott), Kansas (Dole), Maine (Mitchell), West Virginia (Byrd), Kansas (Dole), Tennessee (Baker), Montana (Mansfield). All but Tennessee (16th in population thanks to Nashville and Memphis but otherwise culturally similar) form part of these 26 least populated states. And if I include Minority leaders, I'd be adding Kentucky (McConnell) and would have to extend back until 1977 before I could find a Minority leader that came from one of the top 15 populated states, Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania.
There's a reason for this. It's reflective of the fact the Senators from the larger states are more burdened by serving in leadership roles. Senators from the more populated states have to cater to the needs of a much larger, broader and heterogenous constituency that they are effectively prevented from holding leadership positions. As the Senate's own website notes Senators "from small and large states alike all have comparable committee and floor responsibilities, Senators from the more populous states, such as California, face a broader array of representational pressures than do Senators from the smaller states, such as Wyoming. An indirect effect of Senate apportionment is that contemporary floor leaders of either party tend to come from the smaller rather than larger states because they can better accommodate the additional leadership workload."
The repercussions are that it further limits the interests of more diverse urban America from gaining currency. The last majority leader to come from one of the more populous state was Lyndon Johnson when the country was a vastly different place. This is in marked contrast to the House where members serve more or less the same size constituency and where the leadership tends to come from the more populated states. Speaker Pelosi hails from San Francisco and her predecessor was Dennis Hastert who represented Chicago. The last Speaker of the House who came from one of the least populated states was Carl Albert of Oklahoma in the 1970s.