One Change to Fix the Government

(Even if it will never happen…)

Lindsay Chervinsky, Ph.D.
3 min readFeb 4, 2022
U.S. Senate Chambers, Courtesy of US Senate

There are so many challenges that face our nation today: the lingering pandemic, climate change, systemic racial and economic inequality, rising inflation, the threat of white supremacist violence, and constant threats to our democratic institutions. Miraculously, a large majority of the American people agree action is required and offer broad support for proposed solutions.

Why then, if there is energy and willingness to pass legislation to tackle many of these problems, are we stuck in the mud? The answer lies in our institutions’ failure to respond to the needs and demands of the American people, especially the Senate. One simple solution would make possible the reforms to address the widespread flaws in twenty-first century American life — make Senate representation based on population. The lack of responsibility to the American people is at the heart of almost all challenges facing the nation and this reform would restore popular will to the heart of our institutions. Of course, that solution is anything but simple.

Article I of the Constitution currently appoints two senators per state, while representatives for each state are appointed based on population. In 1787, the delegates at the Constitutional Convention agreed on this compromise to assuage the fears of smaller states. That compromise might have made sense in 1790, when Virginia, the largest state, had a population of 747,160, while the smallest state, Delaware, had 59,094 residents. In other words, Delaware’s population was roughly 1/13 that of Virginia.

In 2020, California, the largest state, has 39.5 million residents, while Wyoming, the smallest, has 576,851, or 1/69 California’s population. The framers of the Constitution could have never imagined how extreme the imbalance would become. By 2040, 70% of Americans are expected to live in the 15 largest states. Meaning 30 senators will represent 70% of the population, while 70 senators will represent only 30%.

As a result, voters struggle to hold senators accountable, and they are much more beholden to party concerns than those of the American people. For example, as Democratic senators negotiated the terms of the Build Back Better bill, all Republicans refused to support the bill. Republican recalcitrance continued despite overwhelming public support for the critical programs in the bill: 79% for long-term care investments, 73% for modernizing K-12 school buildings, 74% for electricity grid modernization, and 73% for Medicare drug price negotiations. What’s remarkable is not that 70% of Americans agree on anything (though that should be discussed more), but that the agreement didn’t matter.

Initially, the Senate was conceived as a brake effect on the Constitution. The delegates at the Constitutional Convention worried that the House would be too responsive, too prone to follow the will of the mob. Senators have longer terms and were initially indirectly elected. Both of these measures were designed to give senators more flexibility to make the right choice, rather than focus solely on their electoral prospects.

That being said, the Senate did not used to be so broken. The filibuster did not exist until the mid-19th century and for most of history, the Senate only required a simple majority to pass most legislation. I’ve written more about this history and how the gridlock escalated. Read more below.

How Did the Senate End Up With Supermajority Gridlock?

Given everything that the Senate doesn’t do, proportional membership is so important. If the Senate membership was proportional, party leadership would be forced to be much more responsive to the demands of citizens. Unfortunately, changing the membership of the Senate would require a constitutional amendment and ratification by 3/4 of the states — which won’t happen because states like Wyoming and Montana won’t ratify a measure that will dilute their power.

It’s a very nice thought, even if it will never happen.

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