Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Creating another House

One criticism I occasionally hear about filibuster reform is that if we get rid of the filibuster, we'll just have two Houses of Representatives.  One response to that criticism is, so what?  But probably a more accurate one is, no we won't.  As Koger and others pointed out in their letter to the U.S. Senate, the Constitution contains plenty of provisions that ensure that the Senate will be a more deliberative body than the House.  Specifically, it is a smaller chamber (meaning members will know each other better and can debate issues longer without derailing legislative business), senators are elected infrequently in staggered terms (meaning members do not have to do what is politically expedient in any given moment), and one must be at least 30 to get elected (as opposed to 25 in the House).

Assuming we see some value in bicameralism, the basic Constitutional structure of the Senate assures that its members and functions will be substantively different from those in the House, even without a filibuster.


Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Most importantly, of course, Senate representation is equal for all states, while it is proportionate to population in the House, which is the political consideration that led to American bicameralism in the first place.

While the distinctive role of the U.S. Senate is clear, the argument for the current state of bicameralism at the state level is not. Many states started out trying to replicate the federal system, with geographic representation in one house, and population based representation in the other, until the U.S. Supreme Court held that this was unconstitutional, rending the bicameral system redundant at the state level.

Nebraskans have no complaints about their unicameral system (although there is considerably dissatisfaction with the non-partisan character of their state legislative elections).

But, absent abandoning bicameralism another way to get more value out of that system at the state level than the current redundant system does in 49 states, which would limit the impact of gerrymandering, expand the political discussion, and create interest in elections in state legislative districts where one party or the other was dominant, making the local outcome a foregone conclusion and driving down voter turnout.

This would be to elect a state senate on a proportional representation list system. Each voter could vote for a state house candidate, and for a political party (and perhaps a favorite candidate within a political party from a party list of nominees) in a statewide state senate race, every two years. This would make it possible for the U.S. to have a true multi-party political system, while still getting the benefits of having representatives who represent local geographic political districts. If a state like Colorado elected half of its state senate every four years on this basis, rather than in its current system, only seventeen or eighteen seats at a time would be at stake, de facto having the same effect that an arbitrary 5% cutoff to get a seat in parliament in Germany's system of this type in order to keep fringe extremist parties out of power does. Staggering this kind of election would also keep the longer term political horizon and smaller number of candidates one needs to learn about benefits of the current system in place. Realistically, such a system would probably give voters four or five viable parties to choose from and a couple more in each election with a realistic change of breaking into the legislature for the first time. It would allow small parties to have a realistic shot of getting somebody in office without having to run a full statewide slate of candidates or winning a majority in any one district, which might make recruiting a few quality candidates easier.

Since every vote would count in determining the percentage of support received by each political party, and learning a little bit about each of the contending political parties would be easier than learning about new candidates or ballot issues each year, the number of voters for whom it would be rational not to spend the effort to study the candidates and bother to vote would be much smaller.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Also, not to be pushy, but I covet a spot on your blogroll for Wash Park Prophet (, although it is, of course, entirely up to you.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...