Saturday, December 18, 2010

Democracy, Interrupted

Prior to the adoption of the Constitution, the United States was governed by the Articles of Confederation, which had no provision for popular representation. Each state, regardless of population, enjoyed equal representation under the Articles, just as they had in the pre-Revolutionary Continental Congress. In that sense, the Articles were more like a treaty between friendly states than a compact forming a new nation.

But then, on July 16, 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia adopted the Connecticut Compromise. Under this plan, the legislature was to be divided into two houses, based on two entirely different forms of representation. Each member of the House of Representatives would be elected on the basis of population, whereas each state, regardless of population, was to be represented by exactly two senators. The Compromise was ultimately enshrined in the new Constitution.

Surely the endurance of those institutions, and the greatness of the nation they serve, attest to the wisdom of the delegates and evince the power of their Compromise. Right?

Well, sorry to come to the party 223 years late, and with a negative attitude at that, but as has been amply demonstrated just this week, the system created over two centuries ago is utterly broken, neither establishing justice nor ensuring domestic tranquility.

There are a variety of quick fixes proposed by pundits. The most obvious is the elimination of the filibuster, a parliamentary quirk arming the Senate minority with the power to prevent a vote on any bill or nomination. The filibuster is not democracy, but rather, an obstruction to democracy.

Certainly the filibuster must go, but perhaps the roots of the issue reach beyond Robert's Rules of Order. Perhaps, in fact, the problem is the Senate itself, an undemocratic body created by those flawed and brilliant Philadelphia Founders for the purpose of getting the Constitution out the door. It is cameral designed by committee, a consensus expedient meeting the needs of the moment but ultimately failing to perform as desired.

In a representational democracy, it should be anathema for each resident of Rhode Island to wield 30 times the Senate voting power of each resident of California. Furthermore, in 21st century America the idea of per-state representation is quaint at best. Few if any issues today are drawn along state borders; our dialog is national, not geographic. The Senate's agenda, largely focused on the executive branch and the management of international affairs, is particularly unsuited to narrow geographic constituencies.

Disproportionate representation is just one of the many, many Senate defects covered at length in an incredible (and lengthy) New Yorker piece by George Packer. For example, Packer points out that "in the current Senate, it has become normal for a handful of senators, sometimes representing just ten or twenty per cent of the country’s population, to hold everything up."

So what's needed is not a parliamentary tune-up, but rather a complete overhaul. I propose that the Senate become a truly national representational body. Candidates would be chosen by the nation as a whole, just as the President and Vice-President are (but without the absurdity of the Electoral College).

The result would be democratic, yet different enough from the local-constituency-based House of Representatives to provide the desired checks and balances that form the basis of the bicameral system. A national Senate favors neither large state nor small, except in matters that truly break along state lines, which, as already observed, are few and far between (and can perhaps be accommodated through some procedural innovations).

Even more important, though, would be the uniting effect such a body could have on the country. Our representatives in this new house would be accountable to all of us. To get elected, he or she would have to support measures popular across a broad swath of the nation. Gone would be the days when a Senator could—or would even want to—put a hold on an uncontroversial measure in order to extort funds for his state. The constituency, in short, would be the entire population.

Perhaps in some future post I'll speculate on the technical details of how such a goal could be accomplished, or on some of the other benefits this model would yield for the country. For now, though, it's enough to give voice to the dream of truly representational democracy, even as I acknowledge that this idea will never, ever come to pass. There are limits to the ability of a broken system to heal itself. The Constitutional Convention itself had to bypass the Articles, appealing directly to the citizenry through the state legislatures. The result was revolutionary, but that was well before the American system had hardened into the atherosclerotic plaque that today threatens the heart of our democracy.

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