Turning the Senate into the House?

Even if the Senate operated under wholly majority rules, it would not be the House.

In response to the “Nuclear Option Lite” move my Senate Majority Leader Reid to use a majority vote to change the rules over a particular type of amendment at a specific moment in the legislative process, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell stated on the floor:  “We are fundamentally turning the Senate into the House” and “The minority’s out of business.”

Now, hyperbole on the floor of a legislative chamber is hardly a new thing in the annals of politics.  Further, it is likely that McConnell knew full well that he was exaggerating, to put it mildly.  However, this is hardly either “turning the Senate into the House” and the minority remains firmly in business.

First, it needs to be understood that the motion to change the rules in this case was targeted on a very specific parliamentary maneuver and is hardly filibuster reform. It does demonstrate the mechanism (which has acquired the popular appellation “Nuclear Option”) by which the majority could substantially alter the filibuster over the objections of the minority.  However, there is a lot less here than that (the exact discussion of what happened and why deserves another post).  As such, McConnell’s statement is not just hyperbole, but hyperbole squared (he said, risking sounding hyperbolic).

Second, even if we take McConnell’s hyperbole at face value, the fact of the matter remains that a Senate operating under basic majority rules would hardly be the House.  This is rather easy to demonstrate by some basic numbers.  If we look at the current Senate and the 2010 Census figures for state populations we find that the representational scheme in the Senate is, as should be obvious, substantially different than that in the House, which means that the kinds of outcomes one is likely to get from a majority-base Senate would still be rather different than the House).

To wit:  The top 25 states in population contains 257,763,289 persons, or 83.65% of the population of the states.  The bottom 25 states in population contains 50,380,536 persons, or 16.35% of the population of the states (such numbers exclude residents in DC, Puerto Rico and other territories).

To put simply:

Top 50% of Senate represents 83.65% of the population of the states.

Bottom 50% of Senate represents 16.35% of the population of the states.

So, even if the Senate operated by majority votes the same way the House does, the relative power of huge chunks of the population (and their interests) are represented rather differently in the Senate than in the House.  And yes, I do understand that partisan factors change this dynamic from a large v. small state one to one of red v. blue states.  Of course, it is worth noting that co-equal representation of the states gives the Republicans a representational edge relative in the Senate.  This is a structural advantage in the Senate given that, as we know, more rural states (i.e., small-to-mid-ranger pop. states)  tend to be more conservative/Republican leaning and large metropolitan areas (i.e., often in larger pop. states) tend to lean liberal/Democratic.  The smaller, rural states grow slowly, yet retain their two Senators while the metro areas tend to grow at a faster rate, yet the states with state metro areas also retain their two Senators.  The extreme, yet real, example:  California (with its 37,253,956)  will grow at a faster rate than Wyoming (with its 563,626) and yet they will continue to have the same amount of power in the Senate (majority rules or not).

Having said all of that, it has to be understood that changing the rules on just one delaying tactic is hardly a radical transformation of the Senate.  Now, it could spark a wider fight that might, over time, lead to significant rules changes.  But even then, the Senate would be rather unlikely to become the House.  The differences between the House and Senate are not so simple that they can be reduced to the House functions under majoritarian rules and the Senate functions under supermajority rules (effectively of late, anyway).  There is a long list of rules and processes that would have to replicated in the Senate to make it the House.  This cannot be stressed enough:  the differences between the House and Senate are far more complicated than simply the majority/supermajority issue.  We also have to understand that the last decade or so has seen a substantial increase in the minority using these mechanisms to block basic business.  As such, we have seen the Senate operate far more under majority rule for much of its history and it hardly looked like the House in terms of operation.

Quite frankly, I would welcome a fight over the rules of the Senate, as the status quo is unacceptable if we actually want the Congress to be functional.  The chamber needs reform to its rules, and it will likely take a fight to spark changes (such is the way of politics).

A parting number:  under the current rules it is possible for a coalition of the 20 least populated states plus one Senator from the next least populated state to have the 41 votes needed to block Senate action.  This coalition would represent all of 10.8% of the population of the states.

FILED UNDER: Congress, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. A parting number: under the current rules it is possible for a coalition of the 20 least populated states plus one Senator from the next least populated state to have the 41 votes needed to block Senate action. This coalition would represent all of 10.8% of the population of the states.

    I’ll trust your math on this, but it does bring one short thought to mind.

    The Founders created the Senate in part to maintain the balance of power between large and small states. As it’s turned out, though, I don’t think that size has been the determinative factor they thought it would. Right now, of the four largest states, two are mostly Republican and two are mostly Democratic. In all honestly, I don’t think you’ll find Chuck Schumer and John Cornyn united on much of anything regardless of the fact that they both come from “large” states.

  2. Ben Wolf says:

    Steven,

    I’d just like to say I appreciate the measured and reasonable tone with which you blog, as well as your efforts to support your positons empirically. Those qualities are all too rare on the interwebs.

  3. Hey Norm says:

    Guys…
    If you are going to do a post evertime McConnell gets up and tells lies on the floor of the Senate then you are going to have to re-name the site. Maybe The Turtle Chronicles?

  4. @Doug Mataconis: Clearly the partisan mix changes much of the calculus. The Framers did not anticipate parties (nor did they anticipate the ratios between the largest and smallest that we currently have).

    I will say this: the ability of the small-ish states to form a coalition to block legislation (based not on size, but partisan ID) is more than possible (although the 10%-ish coalition (i.e., the most extreme example) that I noted is unlikely.

    @Ben Wolf: Thanks–I very much appreciate you saying so.

  5. Ben Wolf says:

    The smaller, rural states grow slowly, yet retain their two Senators while the metro areas tend to grow at a faster rate, yet the states with state metro areas also retain their two Senators.  The extreme, yet real, example:  California (with its 37,253,956)  will grow at a faster rate than Wyoming (with its 563,626) and yet they will continue to have the same amount of power in the Senate (majority rules or not).

    This direcrly concerns what I think might very well have been the Achilles’ Heel in the Founders’ blueprint for our government: it simply isn’t designed to deal with the vast geographic and demographic growth we’ve experienced over the last two hundred years. We’ve gone from a sparsely populated agricultural nation to a behemoth who’s territory spans the globe and among 194 nations is #3 in population. The Founders beat together a government which reflected the states they knew and could not possibly have anticipated how much they would change.

  6. ponce says:

    Wyoming has no residency requirement for voting.

    All it would take for the Democrats to take Wyoming’s two Senate seats is get 100,000 or so of their people from solidly Democratic states to register and vote there.

  7. MBunge says:

    @Ben Wolf: “it simply isn’t designed to deal with the vast geographic and demographic growth we’ve experienced over the last two hundred years.”

    The problem with that idea is geographic and demographic growth have jack squat to do with why the Senate is ‘effed up. What’s wrong with the Senate is that the GOP minority has united to oppose any and every thing proposed by the current President, even to the point of Republican Senators turning on things they previously supported with no other explanation than base partisanship. That opposition has also abused Senate rules beyond anything ever previously imagined.

    You can’t fix something until you know what’s wrong with it.

    Mike

  8. Ben Wolf says:

    @MBunge: The problem goes more broadly than just filibusters, I think. The Senate was structured to give smaller states equal clout. I don’t think the Founders anticipated the emergence of infinitesimally smaller states like Wyoming effectively disenfranchising millions of others, in fact they probably couldn’t have done so. Populations the size of California’s weren’t possible then.

  9. Wayne says:

    The Senate is not the House because it has different members, a different name, and convenes in the north wing of the building instead of the south. So how could McConnell claim the Senate has turn into the house? (Sarcasm off)

    Claiming McConnell’s claim is incorrect using such logic is asinine. McConnell’s claim was that the Senate has been turn into a simple majority voting body just like the House.

    The House has rules that the minority can use to slow down legislation but in the end the minority is pretty much irrelevant and simple majority rules. The nuclear option has given the majority in the Senate a method where they can use a simple majority to rule. I suspect now that it has been use once that it will be used again. Turning the Senate which once had strong minority rights into a simple majority rules entity has turn it into the House in that “aspect”. That aspect was a significant difference between the Senate and House. Bringing up other aspects where they differ doesn’t change that.

  10. @Wayne: Oh no — voters might actually have a decent idea of who is responsible for the policy that is enacted and could hold political parties accountable for both successes and failures…. Can’t have that….

  11. James Joyner says:

    @Wayne: Steven’s point is that, even aside from different internal voting rules–rules created entirely by the two Houses and which change all the time–the Framers designed the House and Senate to be completely different animals. He is, of course, quite right.

    Aside from the representational issues mentioned in the post, consider two other stark differences:

    1. Senators are elected at large, meaning by the entire population of their states, whereas Representatives are elected to represent districts within the states. In larger states, especially, that favors a very different type of politician.

    2. Senators have 6 year terms and Representatives 2 year terms. That creates vastly different incentives and attitudes.

  12. MBunge says:

    @Ben Wolf: “I don’t think the Founders anticipated the emergence of infinitesimally smaller states like Wyoming effectively disenfranchising millions of others”

    And what does that have to do with what’s currently wrong with the Senate? Nothing. The problem is NOT that small states get as many Senators as big states. The problem is that GOP Senators, from big states and small, have decided to oppose everything the current President proposes economically, even things they previously supported in the past and even things that would benefit their states and business interests that support the Republican Party.

    That is the problem and it has NOTHING to do with the rules of the Senate or the structure of our federal government.

    Mike

  13. Ben Wolf says:

    @MBunge: Both parties use the filibuster. Yes, the Republicans use it much more, but the filibuster itself is a product of the notion minorities should be able to obstruct the majority, as is the Senate itself. What the Republicans are doing is in line with what procedures allow them to do; a system for an agrarian republic maybe, but not for an empire which is exactly what we are.

  14. Wayne says:

    @James
    Yes I agree that the House and Senate are different in many aspects including one serves 6 years compared to 2 and one convenes in the north wing while the other convenes in the south wing.

    However Steven post was to refute McConnell’s assertion. Straw man arguments are just a distraction. The length of political term, the people they represent or what wing of a building they serve in, has little to do with what McConnell was talking about.

    One of the fundamental differences between the Senate and House is the Senate is design to protect the minority of this country and its members. It was design to give states equal representation. The House is design around population and simple majority. Also remember the bottom 50% of the Senate represents 50% of the States.

    The Senate has always pride itself on protecting the minority and having rules to do so. Rules changes have always been done in bi-partnership manner prior to this nuclear option. Now the precedent has set that a simple majority can pass any rule they want. They have turned the Senate in that aspect, into the House. That aspect has been a very significant difference between the two houses and now it no longer exists.

    It is like if someone slices your tire and you slice who you thought did it, tires back, someone accuses you of being the same as the person who sliced your tires. Are they saying you live in the same place, belong to same clubs, etc. No they are saying you are the same in a certain aspect. That is all McConnell is saying.

  15. @Wayne:

    However Steven post was to refute McConnell’s assertion. Straw man arguments are just a distraction.

    Well, it seems to me that the nature of representation in the two chambers is rather fundamental to understanding them. Indeed, part of the point of the numbers I provided was that even operating under majority voting rules the Senate still over-represents and empowers a minority.

    No straw man, that.

    Further, you seem to be missing two other points:

    1) The move that Reid engaged in did not do away with minority protections, but rather one specific procedure (hence my assertion of hyperbole).

    and

    2) Even if the Senate were to go to majority votes for most (even all) activities that, in and of itself, does not render all the rules and procedures of the Senate to be identical to that of the House. Even a cloture rule of 51 votes would produce a lot of lengthy debates. The House is radically more constrainted that that in terms of debate.

  16. AWS says:

    @James Joyner: And originally, Senators were appointed by the states’ legislatures, not elected directly by the citizens.

    And some idiots in the GOP want to return to that method.

  17. @Wayne: “Also remember the bottom 50% of the Senate represents 50% of the States”

    If each state contained exactly 2% of the country’s population,
    then your point would have practical meaning.

    But states do not have equal populations.
    In fact, they vary significantly.

    California has 12% of the country’s population,
    while Wyoming has only 0.18%.
    A 66-fold difference.

    Put simply, it is the people that matter. Only the people.

  18. Fargus says:

    One point that has been overlooked here: the filibuster was created by a historical accident. The motion to move the previous question was eliminated in 1806, creating the possibility for a filibuster, but the first filibuster wasn’t exercised until 1837. This seems to indicate that the people who wrote the rules weren’t trying to make a situation where the majority could be endlessly obstructed by a tiny minority, but rather that they accidentally created a loophole which has since been exploited. This notion that the filibuster–and the supermajority requirement for cloture–represents some proud Senate tradition is historically illiterate.

  19. Barry says:

    @James Joyner: “1. Senators are elected at large, meaning by the entire population of their states, whereas Representatives are elected to represent districts within the states. In larger states, especially, that favors a very different type of politician.”

    Yes, both because this generally means politicians operating at a more wholesale level, and also because gerrymandering is not possible.

  20. Barry says:

    @Ben Wolf: “Both parties use the filibuster. Yes, the Republicans use it much more, …”

    Which is the whole point – the GOP has realized that a minority with elite backing and willingness to wreak havoc can use the fillibuster to largely lock up the system.

    The Democratic Party has not done this.

    There is a difference.

  21. Ben Wolf says:

    @Barry: Did you read what Steven wrote? 16% of the population controls 50% of votes in the Senate. Fillibuster rules won’t change what is effectively a design flaw in the legislative branch. The problem goes well beyond what Republicans are or aren’t doing at the moment.

  22. Wayne says:

    The point many are missing is the Senate was created to represent the States and the House the populous. Read up on your history. The less populous states were concern that their states would be less represented than the more populous states. That is why the Senate was created. 50% of the States is still 50% of the States regardless of their population. The populous states have a higher representation in the House. Spin it all you want. However, taking away minority protection in the Senates is in the end taking away the minority protection in the Senate.

    Federal law not only affects the populous but States as well.

  23. James Joyner says:

    @Wayne: But you’re operating under the assumption that states are as important as they were at the founding. They aren’t.

    In 1787, when the Constitutional Convention was held, the 13 states were for all intents and purposes 13 separate countries in a loose confederation. Almost nobody had any communication with, much less travel to, other states.

    Since the Civil War ended, and especially since WWI, we’ve become a unified country. Most of the states have little to no independent history of self-governance; they’re just artificial sub-units of the USA. Most of us travel to other states all the time, many of us have lived in multiple states, and few of us have any real allegiance to the state in which we reside.

    The Senate, Electoral College, and similar institutions of federalism are simply no longer congruent with reality.

  24. Max Lybbert says:

    Based on a report by a long-time Capitol Hill reporter ( http://www.wsbradio.com/weblogs/jamie-dupree/2011/oct/06/senate-jobs-bill-showdown/ ), the statement was “almost the ultimate insider insult that one can throw around in the halls of Congress.” I don’t think the statement was actually meant to become a soundbite for the evening news.

    I don’t think that the vast majority of American actually care if the Senate operates like the House. Senators, OTOH, seem to believe that they are all great dealmakers and political geniuses. Pointing out that they, in fact, aren’t legendary can ruffle some feathers very quickly.

  25. Dan Revel says:

    The numbers are even worse, since only a majority of the 10.8% is needed to elect 41 senators, Senate action can be blocked by a coalition elected by less than 5.5% of the population. Well, I guess we all know where to target our media buys now…

  26. Fargus says:

    @Dan Revel: Also factor in turnout, which may be 50% of registered voters (which themselves don’t represent 100% of the population). You’re talking something on the order of 2%.