The Senate has outgrown its purpose. It’s time to bring it into the People’s House.

Illustration by Max Löffler, The New Republic

It isn’t news to anyone that Mitch McConnell is a hypocrite. And he doesn’t care if you think so, because he’s still standing and still winning.

But his recent remarks at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon, when asked what he’d do if a Supreme Court justice died next year, were remarkably blunt even by his own standards. “Oh we’d fill it”, he replied. With 2020 being an election year, the vacancy should supposedly be left to the winner of November’s presidential race, as per an arbitrary standard McConnell set when he deprived President Obama of the opportunity to fill Antonin Scalia’s seat despite Merrick Garland’s bipartisan appeal.

His willingness to change the rules at a whim in Republicans’ favor while laughably touting “tradition” isn’t unlike the ruse he set to slowly chip away at the filibuster — first by spearheading an unprecedented blockade of Obama’s judicial nominees using the filibuster to create a backlog on the federal courts when he was at that time the Senate Minority Leader. Then, when Democrats were backed into a corner and restricted the filibuster’s use for most judicial nominees, he later used their decision to abolish the filibuster for nominees completely, clearing the way for Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to be rammed through the confirmation process by a simple majority vote.

So when Special Counsel Robert Mueller yesterday told reporters, “If we had confidence that the President clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so”, it doesn’t take much imagination to know what comes next. Should the President be impeached in the House for any number of possible crimes, McConnell’s Senate will do whatever it can to shut down the ensuing trial as quickly as possible, and there are certainly already 34 Republican senators willing to look the other way despite misdeeds that would never have been tolerated under a Democratic president.

As the traditions that once held together the world’s most reputable deliberative body waste away under the current Majority Leader, calls for increasingly radical action have started to take shape: from the introduction of new states to balance outsized rural influence, to making the Senate more proportional, to abolishing the Senate completely. All of these plans confront a central frustration in a country whose voting population is increasingly younger, more urban, and more progressive: that without fundamental changes to the Senate, we are left without a long-term pathway to passing bold legislation (and their protection by the courts) that meet the gravest challenges of our time.

CHART: A Recent History of Senate Cloture Votes Taken To End Filibusters, Brookings

It’s important to note that the very existence of the Senate was based upon a compromise — between the Founders’ competing Virginia and New Jersey plans — at a time when southern states had an entrenched interest in magnifying their power despite a lower population to preserve their exploitation of chattel slavery. And for the first 125 years of the Republic’s existence, it was the state legislatures, not the people, who elected members of the Senate. It was only after decades of organizing by Progressive Era reformers who felt unrepresented and stymied by a corrupt and stagnant Senate that the Seventeenth Amendment was finally passed in 1912, giving voters who were not at that time still disenfranchised the right to directly elect their own senators.

This history illustrates the unlikeliness of power ever given up willingly. But it can be slowly bent in a direction that truly works for the people. Abolishing the Senate might be an ideal outcome, but an alternative — merging the Congress into one body — might fare better at forging a successful long term movement.

This proposal is simple:

  • Membership in the House of Representatives is left as is, proportional to a state’s population. These members would be referred to as “Delegate Representatives” and elected every 2 years.
  • The Senate as an independent voting body would cease to exist, but all of its current members would be transferred into the new unicameral body. Each state would continue to receive an equal number of these “Senate Representatives”, who would vote, share committees, and deliberate as one, to be elected at-large every 6 years.
  • The roles of Senate Majority and Minority Leader, which are found nowhere in the Constitution, would effectively be abolished along with the filibuster. Any roles delegated to the Senate would be left to the new unicameral Congress.

The reality is, neither abolishing the Senate nor forming a unicameral legislature has any hope of coming to fruition anytime soon. But at least the latter doesn’t immediately isolate every current senator — including Democrats — and the low population states that stand to lose from reduced voting power. By giving them a buy-in, ensuring some component of equal-number representation that defines the Senate survives in a newly formed Congress, it broadens the possibility of widespread support needed to overcome the already incredibly high bar needed to pass a constitutional amendment, with 38 states’ approval necessary by the current count. Just consider the long and troubled path something as seemingly commonsense as the Equal Rights Amendment has taken trying to achieve that number.

It’s true that this plan would somewhat dilute the House of Representatives’ progressive nature in terms of its proportional representation. But that could be easily remedied, for example, by increasing the total number of representatives allocated to the states and including previously disenfranchised populations like Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico to the count — both of which would only require a majority vote by a congressional act, not constitutional amendment. And the filibuster, one of the paramount obstacles to passing progressive legislation throughout our nation’s history, would suddenly vanish. The end result would be a US Congress far more representative and adept at governing than the Senate weaponized as a tool for obstruction by Mitch McConnell currently allows.

When the Constitution was signed, the smallest state wielded 12 times more voting power in the Senate than the largest state. Today, the smallest state, Wyoming, has 67 times more voting power in the Senate than the largest, California. And without a fundamental restructuring, population disparities are only projected to make this problem worse:

By 2040, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia, half the population will live in eight states, with eight other states representing the next 20 percent of the population. The remaining 34 states will hold 30 percent of the population. In the Senate, this would give them 68 seats. Over all, half the country’s population would control 84 of the 100 seats in the chamber.

We’re at the precipice of multiple crises that threaten to unleash widespread social upheaval in the coming years: the devastation and resource shortages of climate change, rampant wealth inequality and consumer debt, open-air government corruption, and the rising tide of authoritarian voices. Those who choose inaction or apathy have aligned themselves with each of those dangerous threats. And as long as we continue to continue to play by two different sets of rules, the GOP will be rewarded for their destruction every step of the way.

The Senate has failed to meet the challenges of our time. Like the Progressive Era reformers who identified it as an obstacle in their mission of tackling unbridled corruption and inequality, it’s time for us, too, to act boldly, and to force the chamber to evolve or wither away.

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