All Eyes on the Senate

The media spotlight is now on the Senate as it follows up on the impeachment of President Clinton. Journalists tell us that senators tend to be restrained, deliberative and steeped in tradition. But one important detail gets left out: The Senate is extremely undemocratic.Right now, eight states -- Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming -- each have a population of less than 1 million. All together, the 5.7 million people in those states are represented by 16 senators.Meanwhile, seven states -- California, Florida, Illinois, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas -- each have more than 10 million residents. All together, the 119.6 million people in those states are represented by 14 senators.When a few million Americans have as much representation in the Senate as 120 million other Americans do, we should be squawking.If democracy is the aim, it's outrageous that every state gets two senators -- regardless of population. But we shrug. That's the way the Founding Fathers planned it.History books explain that the two-senators-per-state formula was needed to reassure people in smaller states, who worried about getting steamrollered by Congress. In 1787, the Senate deal was satisfactory to the framers of the Constitution.But the framers were also satisfied with slavery. And they didn't seem to mind that voting was confined to some white males.The continued skewing of the Senate is not a mere historical quirk. It has enormous impact in the present day.Overall, the small-population states have very different demographics than the nation as a whole. Most of those states are rural and overwhelmingly white. The two-senators-per-state arrangement gives them outsized political clout -- sending many pro-corporate conservatives to the Senate from sparsely populated Western states.In contrast, the most urbanized states -- where millions of blacks and Latinos live -- are the most under-represented in the Senate.To make matters worse, the District of Columbia is not represented by a single senator (or even a voting member of the House). Yet D.C. has a bigger population than Wyoming.The new Senate is 97 percent white. The three exceptions to the white rule are the senators from Hawaii and Colorado's Ben Nighthorse Campbell -- a Native American who happens to be a Republican millionaire.Currently, about 40 senators have personal assets pegged above $1 million. "This is now a club for millionaires," Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle acknowledged a couple of years ago. "You either have to have lots of money or you're indebted to somebody for the rest of your life."The Senate enjoys an exalted image in mainstream news media. But realism blows away the gilded glitter."Without a doubt, it's a plutocracy," Common Cause lobbyist Matt Keller told me. "What are these people representative of -- other than wealth?"Today, the U.S. Senate is the most undemocratic elected body in the nation.State governments have been forced to meet far higher standards. Thirty-five years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the structure of state legislatures had to be true to the principle of "one person, one vote."Before the mid-1960s, many legislatures blatantly violated that principle. Often it seemed that apportionment was based on acreage or cows rather than people. In more than a dozen states, lawmakers sitting next to each other were elected from districts with vastly different numbers of constituents. The imbalances had the effect of devaluing the ballots cast by people who lived in urban areas.What the high court struck down as flagrantly anti-democratic for state legislatures has remained just fine for the U.S. Senate.Of course Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution -- which declares that the Senate "shall be composed of two senators from each state" -- is, by definition, constitutional. But that doesn't make it democratic.Politicians in Washington are careful not to raise such difficult questions about the Senate. The silence will echo as long as the country's media outlets stay quiet about basic realities that undermine the ideals of democracy.

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