Federalism and Democracy
Continuing a long-running theme at his blog, Matt Yglesias laments that Senators from small states wield so much power. The latest fuel is a NYT feature on six moderates who are supposedly the linchpins to putting together a bipartisan health care deal and who routinely hash out the details of same over snacks.
[V]ast power is being wielded by people who, in a democratic system of government, would have almost no power. We’re talking, after all, about Max Baucus of Montana, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Susan Collins of Maine, Mike Enzi of Wyoming, and Chuck Grassley of Iowa. Collectively those six states contain about 2.74 percent of the population, less than New Jersey, or about one fifth the population of California.
There’s no doubt that the small states have disproportionate power in a system wherein all states get equal voting power. Then again, that was the whole point (see: Compromise, Great).
Would we design the system this way if we were starting from scratch? Probably not. But it made good sense at a time when the several states were sovereign entities banded together for national defense and international commerce.
Does this make our system undemocratic? Not any moreso than, say, the fact that five unelected people on the Supreme Court (about 0.00 percent of the population!) can overrule an act of the legislature. Or that it requires a supermajority to amend the Constitution or ratify a treaty.
Matt is also frustrated that the above-mentioned six come from predominately rural states and therefore ignore the interests of urbanites. But that’s just a function of self-selection in a particular instance. It’s certainly conceivable that a group of Senators from larger states who happen to be on the fence on some other issue could dine together regularly and use their informal gatherings to work out their policy positions.