…my allegiance is to the Republic, to democracy!
– Obi Wan Kenobi
Springtime in Berkeley effuses the air with a sense of unadulterated hope: the days become sunnier, the flowers bloom en masse, and the desiccated dreams of a political party seem as distant as the San Francisco fog.
I am referring to President Biden’s hamstrung Build Back Better policy package which, thanks largely to Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, has been suffocated in the Senate since spring of 2021.
Sinema (D-AZ), once a self-described “Prada Socialist” who likened campaign contributions to bribery, has since repositioned herself as a moderate and spun a complete 180 on bribes. Her soft rejection of the drug pricing and corporate tax components of Build Back Better have been convenient for her coffers, to say the least. She has become a magnet for cash, bringing in a cool $500,000 from financial sector and pharmaceutical donors last year. Between April and September, Sinema brought in $3 million total, the most since her initial Senate run in 2018 as she rode the “blue wave” to victory.
Meanwhile, the indomitable Joseph Manchin III (D-WV) has been purposefully vague about his support for the bill, even after the White House released a slimmed down $1.75 trillion version that capitulated to the moderate’s concerns. Providing minimal explanation aside from the occasional vague talking point about cost (the bill is projected to reduce the deficit) Manchin has frustrated Democrats with his equivocal language. Meanwhile, he collects $500,000 a year from his coal stock dividends, and has begun receiving more money from conservative donors and business executives, bringing his yearly fundraising to $3.3 million, up 14 times from last year. Build Back Better funds climate resiliency, clean energy, and redistributes wealth from the richest Americans. It is in Manchin’s personal financial interest to oppose it, at the expense of the rest of us.
The bill also contains a myriad of actions meant to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure, lower prescription drug prices, adopt a system of paid family and medical leave, fund universal pre-K and community college, fund elder care, build affordable housing, and expand rural internet access––among other long overdue policies that would finally catch America up to other developed nations. The monumental legislation would fund itself in part through a corporate tax hike. Now, it is essentially dead.
With razor-thin Democratic majorities, Manchin and Sinema have the power to hold an entire nation’s worth of policy hostage while they rake in money and ham it up on Fox News. Through two people, corporate interests and self-aggrandizement can stall an entire nation’s worth of policy that could reduce poverty and save lives. In a body with 100 people representing 320 million, huge power imbalances like this are inevitable.
As President Biden recently joked in an October CNN Town Hall, “[when] you have 50 Democrats, every one is a President.”
Not to hate exclusively on Democrats; our dear Republican countrymen are the main benefactors of this broken system of Senate representation. Trump “won” after receiving fewer votes than Clinton, and he appointed unpopular Supreme Court justices who were approved by Senators representing a minority of Americans after those Senators changed arbitrary Senate rules to get around objections. An “era of minority rule” indeed.
Lately, it seems that whenever our Congress engages in the soul-draining, Sisyphean task of legislating—you know, its job—the American people have a new reason to complain about the government being broken.
The problem is that the conversation too often stops there. Sometimes, it will develop a little further into “we need to elect better leaders!” or more recently “we need to get rid of the filibuster!” Both of which are true, but neither strikes the root of the problem. The filibuster is an antidemocratic rule in an antidemocratic institution––what did you expect? What can be done, beyond changing mere parliamentary procedures, is nuke the Senate. Get rid of it. Total abolition.
Individuals like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are certainly to blame for their anti-democratic antics, but they are exploiting the system in which they work. They are mere symptoms of the disease that is the Senate. Instead of expecting some humans not to be corruptible and selfish creatures (which many of us are), it is more prudent to design institutions that minimize the damage such people can do. Or, in this case, eliminate the ones that have grown so cancerous that they must be forcibly excised to save the host.
Not adding up
The math on Senate representation is laughably outrageous. For example: the roughly 2.7 million people living in Vermont, Wyoming, North Dakota, and Alaska have the same number of Senators as the 110 million people living in California, Texas, Florida, and New York. A person in Wyoming has 70 times more representation than a person in California.
It doesn’t help for representation that the states benefiting the most from outsize influence in the Senate tend to skew conservative and white while the bigger, more diverse states lose out.
If you look at demographic trends, the math is going to get even worse. In about 20 years, half the population will live in eight states. Which means half of America would get 16 votes, and the other (more rural, whiter) half would get 84. Seems legit!
“Why should California be more important than smaller states like Wyoming and Vermont? Coastal states shouldn’t get to lord over the rest of the country!” is the common, half-baked rebuttal to the argument that big states like California, Texas, and New York are screwed by Senate math. The implicit alternative to this (and the world we currently live in) is one where the Senate allows for smaller states—and even individual Senators—to lord over national policy and block the will of the majority from becoming law. Right now, it is technically possible for 41 Senators representing 11 percent of the population to filibuster legislation indefinitely.
To those who would argue that the Senate is built for the purpose of stopping the “tyranny of the majority,” I ask: is a tyranny of the minority preferable? Did the Senate stop the tyranny of a majority white country that was imposed on minority races, or did it enable it?
Senate abolition is not about making California and Texas worth more; it is about a simple, democratic concept: every person in America ought to have the same voting power. By allowing the Senate to exist, we are giving people in highly populated states less power in legislating than their fellow Americans in low populated states.
Also, it is important not to forget that we have state and local governments that govern most of daily life for most people. The Senate is not a dignified bulwark protecting small states from the creeping influence of coastal elites; California and Texas are not trying to infiltrate Nebraska’s politics. This is about national politics where every American should be given equal standing.
Maintenance and progress, stalled indefinitely
The continued existence of the Senate is wreaking havoc on the country. Many measures that are supported by a majority of Americans and would pass in the House are killed in the Senate. Universal healthcare, wealth taxes on the richest Americans, and federal minimum wage hikes all have over 60% support among Americans but no political feasibility in the Senate chamber. A universal background check for gun sales law, supported by a staggering 94% of Americans, has been unable to gain momentum in the Senate since being killed via filibuster in 2013.
Shockingly, these measures supported by a majority of Americans would improve public health, safety, and quality of life for a majority of Americans. According to a study in The Lancet, universal healthcare would save 68,000 lives per year in the United States, and it could be funded in part by taxing wealthy Americans. A wealth tax would also reign in income inequality, which over time destabilizes nations and reduces quality of life as the political system is infiltrated and bent to serve wealthy elites while neglecting everyday Americans. Raising the federal minimum wage to $15/hour would on net lift 900,000 people out of poverty. In 2018, the US saw 14,414 firearm homicides (75.3% of all homicides nationwide). Universal background checks have been shown to reduce gun homicides by 40% and gun suicides by 15% in the 10 years after their passage.
Clearly, the Senate stands in the way of these popular measures that would improve America’s health and quality of life.
It goes beyond that. With the Senate responsible for most of the gridlock in the American government, it takes much of the blame for Americans being dissatisfied with the government’s responsiveness to our needs—like right now, as a gridlocked Senate cuts away at popular progressive reforms.
John Dingell, longest-ever serving member of Congress (1955-2015) and Senate abolitionist, put it this way:
…it is understood that even should a good bill make it through the hyper-partisan House, it will die a quiet death in the Senate because of the disproportionate influence of small states. With my own eyes, I’ve watched in horror and increasing anger as that imbalance in power has become the primary cause of our national legislative paralysis. In primaries, the vocal rump of a minority of obnoxious asses can hold the entire country hostage to extremist views.
What’s the point?
Abolishing the Senate would not be a panacea for our political ills. At this point, our problems are so entrenched that no single stroke can fix them. Unless we boost civics education; unless we publicly fund elections; unless we implement automatic voter registration; unless we expand polling access; unless we get rid of winner-take-all elections; unless we dismantle the two-party apparatus, our current problems will persist.
The trouble is, the mechanism for fixing our broken political system is our broken political system. It’s like trying to set a broken arm with a broken arm. And as long as there are bad faith actors like Manchin and Sinema, they will be the most ardent supporters of the status quo—a status quo where individual politicians can earn money and influence by simply sitting on their hands.
I am not so naïve to think that getting rid of the Senate is remotely likely under our current political climate—or perhaps ever. But adding bold ideas like this to the discourse is vital because it underscores the contrived, impermanent nature of political systems like the Senate that seem self-evident. It makes us question things we take for granted, and search for better ways of doing self governance. If the American experiment is to survive and to prosper, we must never stop trying to build a better country. To grow is to live; to stagnate is to die.
Ironically, Thomas Jefferson once wrote: “We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as a civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.” If the long arc of history is truly meant to bend towards democracy, it’s time to cast aside some of the vestiges left on us by our barbarous ancestors.
Featured Image Source: Direct Democracy