Is the U.S. Senate Obsolete?

Syndicated columnist Neal Pierce has been writing about state and local affairs since at lease the 1970s. In a recent column, he asks, “Are State Governments Obsolete?” It might have been more appropriate to ask whether state governments actually exist — at least in the traditional constitutional sense. Blessed by the Supreme Court and other judicial rulings, state governments have become administrative appendages of the federal government.

In one area after another in the twentieth century — matters of transportation, public health, land use control, education, wildlife management, etc. — the federal government assumed powers that had traditionally been reserved to the states. States might still have an administrative role, but they are now working under a very tight federal leash.

The sweeping environmental laws of the 1970s shifted control over clean air and water to the federal government. The states were, to be sure, left to administer air and water pollution laws day to day but under federally approved programs, leaving real control in federal hands. The Endangered Species Act not only federalized significant parts of wildlife management but also asserted federal authority over large areas of state and local land use. No Child Left Behind moved a large step towards the full federalization of education in the United States.

The federal government has not limited its takeovers to economic and environmental areas, where spillover effects do sometimes create difficulties for states whose  boundaries are awkwardly configured. As the Supreme Court declared in 2005 in the Raich case (with Justice Scalia surprisingly abandoning his previous federalism principles to support the decision), federal marijuana laws trump state and local laws. Federal power over the states now even extends bizarrely to the minimum drinking age for alcoholic beverages, an area explicitly reserved constitutionally to the states. (Like many others, the Supreme Court justified this federal undermining of state authority on the grounds that the states “voluntarily” accepted it — in order to protect their federal transportation funding.)

It is not the states but the U.S. Senate that is obsolete. When the United States was founded, the ratio of the largest state in population to the smallest (Virginia to Delaware) was 13 to 1. Now it is 71 to 1 (California to Wyoming). The U.S. Congress makes most of its decisions by forging compromises that bring together large enough coalitions of winners to pass a bill. Senators from Wyoming and other sparsely populated states sell their disproportionately large voting rights for disproportionately large federal moneys (relative to population). That is a main reason farm subsidies have been impossible to curb: states like North Dakota and South Dakota trade Senate votes for this abundant source of federal money.

In many cases small states actually want the federal government taking responsibility because then federal money pays. This dynamic is apparent in the Rocky Mountain states where 50 percent of the land is federal — and, even if it were offered to them, states would refuse to take financial and administrative responsibility.

We may be coming to a point where we should revisit the whole U.S. constitutional scheme. The usurpation of state authority is only one of many examples of current federal dysfunction. The U.S. fiscal situation seems dangerously close to veering out of control (see this recent Robert Samuelson column). Many of these problems have to do with the structure of Congress, starting with the Senate.

Another major problem is the assumption of far ranging policy making responsibility in the courts (the reason Supreme Court nominations now consume so much of the nation’s attention). Big changes are needed in both areas.

It is a very large subject. Obviously, nothing radical is likely to happen any time soon. But just to put out some ideas for discussion, I recently speculated on a brand new constitutional arrangement for the United States.

Recommendation No. 1 – abolish the U.S. Senate.

19 thoughts on “Is the U.S. Senate Obsolete?

  1. xutag77

    The problem is not the senate, the problem is that house is too small. Every house member cannot properly represent a common group of interests because of the size of the districts. The House should be the individual's shield against federal intervention.

    The Senate was designed to be the state's shield against the federal intervention. All the state government has to is threaten its senators with its origianal powers instead of the people's vote and they also will fall into line.

    1. cackcon

      The size of the House really has nothing to do with anything, especially the check against Senate votes. If you want more “accurate” representation, how about an end to rapant gerrymandering? All the House members do nowadays (and the Senate is the same) is represent themselves. Incumbents rule, and the people drool.

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  3. Name

    The problem isn't that the structure of the Senate gives power to small states – it's that Senators don't answer to the state governments, as they were originally intended to do under the Constitution. Direct election of Senators has warped the Senate from a level playing field for all of the states to the horse-trading post it has become. It was a clear and decisive blow that has caused federalism to bleed to death. The Senate has a purpose, it just no longer serves that purpose – and that has been decisive in the neutering of the state governments, since they have not had a voice in DC for 70 years.

    1. cackcon

      Amen and amen. Not surprisingly, the federal courts soon followed suit on a number of important doctrines (commerce clause, incorporation, etc.). After all, it was the new populist Senate which voted on judicial nominees from then on.

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  5. Tim H.

    While I agree with the underlying motivation for your argument–the encroachment of Federal power outside its Constitutional bounds–I must strongly disagree that the Senate is obsolete. There is a good argument to be made for changing details (maybe how they are elected) so as to return the Senators to their place as representatives of their states, rather than as super-Congressmen.

    But I'll strongly defend the equal representation of the small states in the Senate. Let the Senate stay as the “saucer” to cool off the House (to use a famous analogy), even when they block something I want, because they're the best defense the small states have against bullying by the large ones.

    Regardless, it is not *possible* to amend the Constitution to change the equal representation of states in the Senate:

    In Article V of the Constitution, describing the amendment process, it specifies only one permanently unamendable part of the Constitution:
    “…no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.”

    1. cackcon

      You forget that the text of the constitution has become (lamentably) forsaken. That a U.S. Attorney General could give his stamp of approval to the proposed bill to give D.C. a represenative in the House should be evidence enough of how a supposedly “living, breathing document” is all but dead.

  6. ironchefofmunchies

    The passage of the 17th Amendment in 1912 marked the end of the American Republic. Once the Senate began representing the people (at large) of states it ceased it's original purpose to serve as the voice of the states themselves.

    Most people don't undestand the difference, any more than they understand the difference between a Republic and a Democracy. We have dumbed ourselves down to the point where our citizens assume they are the same thing.

    I would close by quoting a very wise man who foresaw this 200 years ago:
    “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public's money.”
    Alexis de Tocqueville

    1. cackcon

      Exactly, a Republic is no stronger than the sum of its citizens. Unfortunately for all of us, one political party is hell bent on “dumbing down the masses” to cram their crap sandwiches down our throats. And we keep giving them bigger majorities….

  7. Dave R.

    I'll accept the argument that small state's Senate influence buys them votes, but not the conclusion that the Senate should therefore be abolished. First, out of a desire for separation of powers, a unicameral legislature is the last thing we should want. Second, the big states are already influential in the House and in Presidential elections; abolishing the Senate would only cement there control, and make “fly-over country” serfs to the major population centers.

    I do agree with the other commenters who suggest repealing the 17th amendment as a start. It won't directly help with pork spending, but it will help with state's rights.

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  9. chrisboltssr

    I wouldn't say abolish the Senate, but the Constitution to be amended to remove the requirement to elect the Senators. I agree with Name's post in that the responsibility of the Senators need to be turned back over to the States.

  10. cackcon

    Exactly, a Republic is no stronger than the sum of its citizens. Unfortunately for all of us, one political party is hell bent on “dumbing down the masses” to cram their crap sandwiches down our throats. And we keep giving them bigger majorities….

  11. cackcon

    You forget that the text of the constitution has become (lamentably) forsaken. That a U.S. Attorney General could give his stamp of approval to the proposed bill to give D.C. a represenative in the House should be evidence enough of how a supposedly “living, breathing document” is all but dead.

  12. Dave R.

    I'll accept the argument that small state's Senate influence buys them votes, but not the conclusion that the Senate should therefore be abolished. First, out of a desire for separation of powers, a unicameral legislature is the last thing we should want. Second, the big states are already influential in the House and in Presidential elections; abolishing the Senate would only cement there control, and make “fly-over country” serfs to the major population centers.

    I do agree with the other commenters who suggest repealing the 17th amendment as a start. It won't directly help with pork spending, but it will help with state's rights.

  13. cackcon

    Amen and amen. Not surprisingly, the federal courts soon followed suit on a number of important doctrines (commerce clause, incorporation, etc.). After all, it was the new populist Senate which voted on judicial nominees from then on.

  14. cackcon

    The size of the House really has nothing to do with anything, especially the check against Senate votes. If you want more “accurate” representation, how about an end to rapant gerrymandering? All the House members do nowadays (and the Senate is the same) is represent themselves. Incumbents rule, and the people drool.

  15. chrisboltssr

    I wouldn't say abolish the Senate, but the Constitution to be amended to remove the requirement to elect the Senators. I agree with Name's post in that the responsibility of the Senators need to be turned back over to the States.

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