Glossary: The Senate
This is part of glossary of people, institutions, and concepts that reviews their recent history and frames their relevance to this story
The gerrymandering of Congressional districts by Republican legislatures gave a big leg-up to Republican candidates but in 2018 the dam broke and the Democrats finally took control of the House. While gerrymandering and demographic sorting still undercut Democrats in House elections, their recent support from a clear majority of Americans means that their control of the House is likely to last for a while. However, the Senate is the more powerful body as it alone can ratify treaties and confirm executive branch and judicial appointments. The House has no comparable exclusive functions. In any event, no legislation can reach the desk of a President without the Senate’s approval.
The country has developed and evolved in such a fashion as to give disproportionate power to small and mid-sized states in the Senate. California and New York, which both vote overwhelmingly in favor of Democrats, have four Senators. Twenty states with combined populations roughly equal to California and New York, states which currently only have Republican Senators and could be considered “red” states, contribute fully forty of the fifty-three Senators in the current Republican majority. In the days when outstanding candidates could overcome the partisan lean of their states, the power of small and mid-sized states was not always so consequential in the balance of power between the two parties. However, all politics now is extremely nationalized and partisan. Red and blue states elect almost exclusively red and blue Senators. Candidates still matter but even swing states largely follow the prevailing national trends. This has given Republicans such a structural advantage in the U.S. Senate that the Democratic wave in 2018 still left Republicans in control by 53 to 47. Even with projections of a substantial Biden victory, it has remained a tall order for the Democrats to actually take control of the Senate in 2020. And this is an especially auspicious year in which there are far more vulnerable Republican than Democratic incumbents, something that is not projected to happen again in the foreseeable future. If the Democrats do take control in 2020, and you assume the partisan leanings of the states remain stable, they are likely to lose it again in 2022 and not regain it unless and until a number of solidly red states began to lean blue.
And this is on top of the filibuster rule that requires a totally unattainable 60 votes to pass any significant legislation. No one with a serious read of the current political situation would make the potential for passage of significant legislation dependent upon a grand bargain with Republicans about anything. The Gang of Eight bi-partisan immigration reform of 2013, which was largely a repackaging of the immigration reform package that George Bush proposed in 2007 was the last such effort in this regard. While it passed the Senate with 68 votes, it was completely out of sync with the Republican base whose avatars in the House never allowed it to come to a vote. That base, living in its bubble, can reliably be expected to oppose any major policy initiative proposed by the Democrats. Yet, even in the middle of the most recent Democratic Presidential nomination contest with Democrats afire with sweeping new policy proposals, few Democratic Senators openly urged doing away with the filibuster. Most, including Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris who had no fear of embracing the politics of Medicare for All, were only willing to say that they were “open to it.” California’s Dianne Feinstein spoke for many in praising the filibuster’s “healthy sobering effect” on the institution. Biden has traditionally defended it and has only very recently indicated that he might reconsider. Even as Democrats have come out of the closet with their “openness” to a change, the caucus certainly won’t vote as a block to do away with it. Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia thinks that doing away with the filibuster is “bullshit” which would turn the Senate into a “glorified version of the House.” He is almost certainly a “no” vote. At least two other Senators (Sinema of Arizona and Tester of Montana) are on record opposing changing the rule and are likely no votes. It clearly will require more than just a simple Democratic majority to make it happen.
Some changes to the tax code do not require 60 votes. Otherwise, any major legislation that would be proposed by a President Biden would be dead on arrival unless the Democrats not only take control of the Senate but do so by enough votes to change the filibuster rule. If electing a Democratic President is about public policy, not just offing Donald Trump, then they have to exceed expectations in traditionally Republican-leaning states such as North Carolina, Georgia, Iowa, Arizona, and Montana where control of the Senate hangs in the balance.
We are so far from “One Person, One Vote,” that it may not be attainable. Yet, some long term relief from the Senate’s minority rule could be accomplished by extending full representation to millions of American citizens currently deprived of it in adding theDistrict of Columbia and Territory of Puerto Rico as states. Depriving millions of mostly black and brown Americans of proper representation should be seen for what it is, a stain on our democracy redolent of the three-fifths compromise.Beyond that, Democrats’ best option for democratizing the Senate would be break-uping outsized states such as California to give those citizens more Senators. But such fixes would be extremely controversial moves for a post-filibuster Senate, testing the loyalty of vulnerable Senators from swing states. Perhaps the least controversial move — adding D.C. as a state — could easily be thrown out by a conservative Supreme Court as unconstitutional and one could also imagine the Court contriving constitutional obstacles to the downsizing of states.