Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The limits of democracy in American government

Matthew Yglesias contemplates the undemocratic representation and Rube Goldberg-esque nature of our national government:
…the entire structure of the US Congress with its bicameralism and multiple overlapping committees is biased toward making it easy for concentrated interests to block reform. Between them, Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer, Chuck Schumer, Kristen Gillibrand, Bill Nelson, Dick Durbin, Roland Burriss, Arlen Specter, Bob Casey, Sherrod Brown, Carl Levin, Amy Klobuchar, Kay Hagan, Bob Menendez, Frank Lautenberg, Mark Warner, Jim Webb, Patty Murray, Maria Cantwell, Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, and Evan Bayh represent 50 percent of the country’s population. But that only adds up to 22 Senators—you need thirty-eight more to pass a bill.


The American presidency is a weird institution. If Barack Obama wants to start a war with North Korea and jeopardize the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, it’s not clear that anyone could stop him. If he wants to let cold-blooded murderers out of prison, it’s completely clear that nobody can stop him. But if he wants to implement the agenda he was elected on just a few months ago, he needs to obtain a supermajority in the United States Senate.
He continues:
… if you add together the two Republican Senators from Wyoming with the one from Alaska, one from South Dakota, one from New Hampshire, two from Maine, two from Idaho, two from Nebraska, one from Nevada, two from Utah, two from Kansas, two from Mississippi, one from Iowa, two from Oklahoma, two from Kentucky, one from Louisiana, two from South Carolina, and two from Alabama, the 28 of them collectively represent (on a system in which you attribute half the population of a given state to a senator) 11.98 percent of the American population.
Meanwhile, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein together represent 11.95 percent of the American population.

Now of course Texas is also a big state (though at 7.81 percent of the population it’s a lot smaller than California) and there are small states (like Vermont and North Dakota) that have two Democratic Senators. So the point here isn’t a narrowly partisan one, though the wacky apportionment of the Senate does have a partisan valence. The point is that this is an unfair and bizarre way to run things. If you consider that the mean state would contain two percent of the population, we have just 34 Senators representing the above-average states even though they collectively contain 69.15 percent of the population. The other 66 Senators represent about 30 percent of the people. If the Iranians were to succeed in overthrowing their theocracy and set about to write a new constitution, nobody in their right mind would recommend this system to them.

Then you add in the filibuster…
And let’s not forget the Electoral College and lifetime appointments of Supreme Court justices. It is a system devised through compromise in the 18th Century that barely serves the needs of a nation confronting the issues of the 21st Century.

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