Imagine if Washington gave your politically opposite relatives vastly greater political power – 10, 20, even 70 times normal – simply because they lived in a small state.
You'd be outraged, and rightly so.
Yet that's exactly the situation we find ourselves in today with the US Senate. Because the Senate guarantees two seats regardless of population, the 563,000 people of Wyoming have as much influence in one-half of the federal lawmaking process as the 37 million people of California.
Yet folks in big states like California, Texas, and New York should consider themselves lucky. At least they do not have the double insult that we Floridians, 18.8 million of us, are forced to endure: having two senators on opposite ends of the political spectrum, both of whom claim to represent the values of Floridians.
The US Senate is said to be a product of the Founders' genius. But if the Great Compromise of 1787 that gave us a bicameral legislature helped the nation take shape, its legacy today is a democratic eyesore. The Senate disadvantages residents of large states while simultaneously holding out the prospect that voters will have their interests canceled out by a state's other senator. And that raises the question: In a modern, mobile America, should the value of our political voice really be defined by where we live?
The outdated origin of the Senate
"But it is superfluous to try, by the standard of theory, a part of the Constitution which is allowed on all hands to be the result, not of theory, but 'of a spirit of amity, and that mutual deference and concession which the peculiarity of our political situation rendered indispensable.' "
Yet the "peculiarity of our political situation" in 1787 – namely that the 13 Colonies saw themselves as largely separate countries, thus necessitating a Senate that put small states on equal footing with large states – is about as operative in 2011 as the horse and buggy. Of course, this does not in any way suggest that our political situation today is any less peculiar.
'Cancel Out Our Votes or Die'
For example, on one of the most controversial domestic issues of the day, health-care reform, Floridians have elected two senators who work at cross-purposes with each other: one who voted for the law requiring all Americans to purchase health insurance, Bill Nelson (D), and the other, Marco Rubio (R), who encourages efforts to have the law declared unconstitutional. Though Florida's state motto is "In God We Trust," a more fitting motto would be "In Contradiction We Exist."
New Hampshire, with its tiny population of 1.3 million, is in the same boat. The state is represented in the Senate by Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, who voted for the health-care bill, and a Republican, Kelly Ayotte, who has pledged to repeal it. Perhaps New Hampshire should consider changing its famous motto "Live Free or Die" to "Cancel Out Our Votes or Die." The change would be apropos. Ditto for Ohio and Pennsylvania, among other split-personality states.
A better alternative to tinkering with state mottos, however much fun that may be, would be to change the existing Senate structure itself. Such a change, of course, would entail coming to grips with what Madison would likely view as the modern "peculiarity of our political situation."
Crossing state lines changes voter influence
The chief characteristic of today's political peculiarity is undoubtedly the fact that moving from one state to another can result in the immediate diminution or increase of a citizen's voice in national politics. Move from Nevada to California, for example, and you substantially decrease the power of your vote, and thus your voice, to influence national affairs – simply by crossing a state line.
In 1787, for the purpose of forging a United States of America, it was reasonable for Madison and others to argue to residents of large states that their sacrifice in equal legislative clout was worth it. Yet in 2011, when the 626,000 residents of Vermont have the same clout in one-half of the federal lawmaking process as the 25 million residents of Texas, the sacrifice deserves reconsideration.
In the wake of Osama bin Laden's death, to cite just one example, more Americans are questioning why we are spending billions every month for nation-building in Afghanistan. In concert with the House of Representatives, the US Senate has the power to curb that spending, but it won't muster the will until it accurately represents the will of the American people.
The question must be asked: In this information age, what is it about residents of Delaware, Wyoming, or Rhode Island that endows them with greater wisdom on the major issues facing the nation? Why do the opinions of those in small states – no offense, folks in Cheyenne – matter more than those in large states, like California, Texas, New York, and Florida?
They don't, of course. But as long as the status quo Senate structure is maintained, the nation will continue with the pretense that they do.