On Nov. 16, Pipe Dream published a column proposing the abolition of the U.S. Senate. Its author predicated this radical suggestion on the basis that the Senate, with its two senators per state requirement, disproportionately represents the people of the United States and is therefore undemocratic. Smaller states by population are overrepresented and thus wield too much power. Indeed, abolishing the Senate would “expand the democratic process.” The author, in this article, relies on a false premise: the Senate is not meant to represent the people to the federal government. It represents the states, which is why the Constitution’s framers wanted senators to be elected by the state legislatures, not by popular vote, and formed the House of Representatives to represent the people. This distinction between the states and the people is important, as it emphasizes that states have their own interests aside from those of the people. Senators’ election by state legislatures also ensured that citizens were more involved at the state level rather than just at the federal. That changed with the 17th Amendment, guaranteeing senators’ election by popular vote, and the attention shifted away from state to federal.
The origin of this system was a compromise between the small states and their larger counterparts at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The larger states, such as Virginia and Pennsylvania, were propped up by hefty populations of slaves — up to a full third of their populations — and wanted exclusively proportional representation in the federal government in order to hold more control over policy. Virginia and Pennsylvania were up to nine times larger than the smaller states. The smaller states, like New Hampshire and Delaware, rebelled, arguing that slaves, who could not vote, should not be considered for congressional apportionment in the House. On a broader scale, the small states feared that the larger states would reign over them in a proportional Congress, preventing their voices from being heard — as of the most recent Congress, seven states combined to hold just 1.6 percent of the seats in the House. They wanted a second chamber, one in which they knew they would be equally represented to the federal government. To the chagrin of the larger states, the Senate was formed. It ensures that small states, practically irrelevant in the House of Representatives, have a stable voice in government. The equal representation of the states in the Senate, then, is a vital check on the power of the majoritarianism embodied in the House. This settlement was known as the Great Compromise, highly regarded as having saved the Constitution from certain death.
This balance of power is critical in government, assuring that for legislation to pass, it must have the support of both chambers of Congress — in other words, be beneficial for both the states and the people. This often results in partisan gridlock and the slow movement of bills through the pipes of Washington. Though it may seem inefficient, it is precisely what the framers intended, because they trusted in state and local governments to get things done — not the federal government. State and local governments, not the federal, are capable of managing the regional nuances required in governing a country as large and diverse as ours. In the framers’ experience, a speedy government was used to impose widespread restrictions, not freedoms, on the people. The unfettered power and ferocity of a proportional unicameral government was specifically rejected in 1789 with the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, the document that guaranteed a restricted federal government.
Moreover, the author dislikes the proportional House of Representatives, which, she writes, “can oftentimes fail the majority of voting Americans.” Thus, her real concern is not that the Senate is undemocratic, nor that the House may not fulfill its supposed obligation to implement the will of the majority. Her actual complaint, it appears, is that we do not live in a majoritarian society. After all, if the House was restricted to following what the majority of Americans allegedly support, what is the point of having the House in the first place? Why not hold a national election every time a bill is up for a vote, and give in to pure democratic rule? The framers disdained this for a reason: it can only lead to oppression of the minority by the majority. As the saying goes, “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch” — in other words, lethal for the lamb. We do not live in, nor do we aspire to be, a majoritarian society because the minority would be crushed. Our system is the only way in which the minority can have a tangible impact on the government. Anything else is not just anti-republic, but immoral.
E.J. Meltzer is a sophomore majoring in economics.