Pierre Atlas: Filibuster compounds Senate’s representation problem

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Pierre AtlasAccording to the latest polls, more than 75% of Americans support President Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill that includes a $15-per-hour federal minimum wage.

The bill was passed by the House of Representatives, but things are more complicated in the Senate, where its cloture rule requires the support of 60 senators (rather than 51) to overcome a threatened filibuster and allow for a vote on non-budget-related bills. While spending bills can avoid this high threshold, the Senate parliamentarian has ruled that a minimum wage mandate is not a budget item. So, despite its popularity nationwide, the wage increase will have to be removed to enable the Senate bill to be passed by a simple majority.

As every American grade-schooler knows, the House represents the people and the Senate represents the states. The Constitution’s framers designed the Senate so that smaller-population states—and, significantly, slave-owning states—would not be overwhelmed by more populous states on legislation. In the House, each congressperson represents about the same number of people in each district. In the Senate, it’s the states that are equally represented. Wyoming, with a population of 582,000, has only one congressperson (Liz Cheney), while California, with a population of 39.4 million, has 53. But each state has two senators.

Judged by the criterion of “one person, one vote,” the U.S. Senate is the most unrepresentative legislative body in the democratic world. As political scientists Alfred Stepan and Juan J. Linz have noted in their comparison of the world’s federal democracies, the Senate “generates by far the greatest violation of the classic majority principle of ‘one person, one vote,’” making it “the most malapportioned of all such upper houses.”

With over 82% of Americans living in cities today, it could be said that the Senate favors land (mostly rural) over people (mostly urban and suburban). In the Senate, Wyoming and California have equal weight, but their vastly divergent populations do not. This is as the framers intended.

The filibuster, which has no basis in the Constitution, only compounds the Senate’s inherent unrepresentativeness of the will of the people. The filibuster is the product of the Senate’s idiosyncratic tradition of unlimited debate and its requirement for unanimous consent to get anything done. Until a rule change in the 1970s, senators were required to keep speaking in order to sustain a filibuster; this was portrayed most vividly in the classic 1939 film, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” where an idealistic young senator (James Stewart) keeps speaking until he passes out. Since that rule change, the number of filibusters filed each session has increased fivefold. Today, all that is needed to shut down the Senate is the mere threat of a filibuster; actual, spoken filibusters are rare to non-existent.

The 60-vote cloture requirement gives the minority party—or any single senator—undemocratic veto power over most legislation. Eliminating the filibuster outright (known as the “nuclear option”) would make the Senate more like the House. As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. Senators know that, even if they are in the majority today and are frustrated by the filibuster, they could be in the minority tomorrow and will be glad to have it at their disposal.

The problem isn’t the filibuster itself, but its constant abuse in recent decades. The Senate should reinstate the rule that filibusters be spoken and not merely threatened. Require every obstructionist senator to become a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”•


Atlas is a professor of political science and was the founding director of The Richard G. Lugar Franciscan Center for Global Studies at Marian University. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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