Wednesday, May 01, 2013

America's inequitable Constitution

One of our Oregon Senators, Jeff Merkley, has been trying to put a stop to Senate filibusters that block up or down votes on key legislation.

I signed his on-line petition, but we have a much bigger problem with the Senate. It's well outlined in Robert A. Dahl's book "How Democratic is the American Constitution?"

The short answer isβ€” not very.

And the U.S. Senate is about as undemocratic as can be. The book uses the 2000 census, but nothing has changed since then in terms of the inequity in how the Senate is composed and operates.

Civic's 101 tells us that each of the 50 states, regardless of population, gets two senators.

How inequitable is that and how hard would it be to change the Constitution to rectify matters?

I'll let Dahl, who teaches at Yale, explain using the extremes of Wyoming, the least populous state, and California, the most populous. Their populations differ by a factor of 70. Each has two senators, which means that if you live in Wyoming your vote has the power of 70 California votes in a senatorial elections and deliberations.

Among all federal systems found in 12 countries, only Brazil and Argentina have greater unequal representation, Dahl reports.

Because it would take Senate approval to amend the Constitution, reform can't happen, writes Dahl. The system is inherently rigged against reforming itself. It's a closed system.

Thirty-four Senators from the 17 smallest states β€” with a mere 7.28 percent of the population β€” could block an amendment to reform the Constitution.

So Senator Merkley is fighting a tough skirmish in a larger, hopeless battle.

Dahl's book is as fascinating as it is depressing. For more about it go HERE.

One small ray of hope is that he believes moderate changes to make our government at least somewhat more democratic can start at the local and state levels.

An example are two states, Maine and Nebraska, which have voted to apportion their electoral college delegations by the same proportions as the voting results, not winner-take-all. If all states did that, we'd be a lot closer to avoiding debacles like the 2000 election in which the majority of voters elected Al Gore but the electoral college gave the White House to George W. Bush.

If we did that, candidates would campaign in all the states, and so democratize the campaigns.More voters might choose to participate.

The results of these constitutional failings is shameful. Among the world's 22 well-established democracies, the US is in the bottom third in women's parliamentary representation, in the ratio of rich to poor inequity, in energy efficiency, in welfare, in social expenditures, in voter turnout (we are next to the bottom), in incarceration rate (ours is the highest) and in foreign aid (in which we are dead last).

And just think, this is the Constitution we are asked to pledge our support to. It's enough to give one pause β€” and then some.

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