Anachrosaurus Rex: Minority-Rule Senate

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The latest attempt at campaign finance legislation, known as the McCain-Feingold bill, went down to defeat recently, courtesy of another filibuster in the US Senate. Is any- body surprised that, once again, the foxes declined to board up the hen house that feeds their appetites?

What is this filibuster business, anyway? McCain-Feingold had majority support. But under arcane Senate rules, a majority isn't enough to get anything done, because 41 percent can block a vote on legislation. This flies in the face of a revered democratic tradition called "majority rule."

As undemocratic as a filibuster seems, the full enormity of the problem is far worse. Because of the unique way that the US Senate allots representation - based on two senators per state instead of by population - it's possible that senators representing only 10 percent of the nation can block legislation desired by the other 90 percent.

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Consider this: California has 66 times as many people as Wyoming, yet these states have the same representation in the Senate. A senator in Rhode Island represents 500,000 residents, while a senator in New York represents 9 million.

According to author Michael Lind, writing recently in Mother Jones, today half of the Senate can be elected by 15 percent of the American people. By filibustering, senators representing little more than one-tenth of the nation can block reforms supported by the House, the president, and their fellow senators, who represent the other 90 percent of the country.

What's more, because of its special constitutional role - approving presidential appointments, judicial offices, and confirming treaties - the Senate has a powerful influence on all three branches of government.

Filibusters and pork-barreling by senators representing a minority of the population aren't just mathematically possible. According to the report "Monopoly Politics" released by our Center for Voting and Democracy, the nine most conservative states have only 5 percent of the nation's population yet control 18 percent of Senate seats: In other words, these conservative states are overrepresented in the Senate by three and a half times.

This conservative bloc has used its overrepresentation to great advantage. For example, in 1991 the Senate voted 52 to 48 to appoint Clarence Thomas to the US Supreme Court, even though Senators supporting Justice Thomas represented a minority of the American people. From 1981-87, President Reagan would have faced a Democratic Senate if the Senate were elected on the basis of population.

Urban policy and assistance for inner cities have been bottled up by senators representing conservative low-population rural states. And now, these same conservative senators, led by the Senate majority leader from Mississippi, have joined with Repub- lican senators from big states like Texas and Pennsylvania to kill campaign finance reform.

How ironic: The same Senators who balked at the nominations of Lani Guinier and Bill Lann Lee because of those nominees' support for affirmative action wield disproportionate power due to arcane Senate rules that overrepresent low-population states. This is not an issue of conservatives versus liberals or Democrats versus Republicans, it's an issue of fairness.

The Senate was originally designed by the Founding Fathers as a compromise to settle the big state versus little state controversy. But the solution solved one dilemma only to create others that still haunt our nation.

There are only two routes to balancing representation in the Senate. One is to amend the US Constitution - an arduous path that, ironically enough, requires two-thirds support in the Senate and no doubt would be blocked by the same senators who benefit from the status quo. Another route is voluntary division of the big states into smaller states, with each new state allocated two senators. But neither solution will be politically viable any time soon.

Most legislatures, not only in the US but around the world, base representation on population. This is a principle that many popular revolutions and struggles have fought for and wrested from kings, dictators, and tyrants. It's a sound principle, and one that our American democracy proudly has exported to the rest of the world.

Except in the Senate. That body is in the running for the least representative legislature among Western democracies, outside the British House of Lords. It's time to scrutinize more closely this antiquated legislative body that is so unrepresentative of the American people.

* Steven Hill is the West Coast director of the Center for Voting and Democracy (www.igc.org/cvd). The views expressed here are his own.

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