The Senate Has Always Been Wildly Unrepresentative

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- We live an era when many time-honored American political traditions — some admittedly strange or even sinister, some not — are being identified as Threats to Our Democracy. A partial list of the threats that have been identified would I think have to include gerrymandering, the Electoral College, partisanship, barriers to voting, hesitancy to require people to carry government-issued identification, the naturalizing of immigrants and the lifetime appointment of Supreme Court justices.

Then there’s the U.S. Senate. After David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report pointed out in a New York Times op-ed Monday that “a majority of the Senate now represents just 18 percent of the nation’s population,” my fellow Bloomberg View columnist Conor Sen predicted:

The Senate is undeniably a quite unrepresentative body. The primary author of the U.S. Constitution, James Madison, wanted to replace the ineffectual governance by sovereign states of the Articles of the Confederation with a national system built on individual representation, and thought it obvious that Senate seats should be apportioned on the basis of population. He also seemed confident that his view would prevail, writing to George Washington a few weeks before the start of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 that:

A majority of the States, and those of greatest influence, will regard it as favorable to them. To the Northern States it will be recommended by their present populousness; to the Southern by their expected advantage in this respect. The lesser States must in every event yield to the predominant will. But the consideration which particularly urges a change in the representation is that it will obviate the principal objections of the larger States to the necessary concessions of power.

The lesser states did not yield and the larger states did, though, so we ended up with more or less the Senate we have today, except that then it was chosen by state legislators while since the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913 it has been elected by popular vote. Hardly any of the states that have joined the Union since 1790 can claim to have been sovereign entities beforehand (they were territories of the U.S.), but we still have a major legislative body that’s chosen according to the principle that they were.

So yes, the U.S. Senate is an unrepresentative anachronism. But it’s pretty much the same unrepresentative anachronism that it has been for a couple of centuries now. Last year Philip Bump of the Washington Post examined another gee-whiz statistic about the Senate — that by 2040, 70 percent of the population will live in just 15 states and thus select only 30 percent of U.S. Senators — and found that this wasn’t far off from historical averages. Neither is it all that big a change for a majority of the Senate to represent 18 percent of the population.

The one piece of the state population picture that Bump found to be starting to depart from historical norms was the percentage of U.S. residents living in the five biggest states, which according to projections by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Services will reach an all-time high of 39.6 percent by 2040. People in the two most populous states have already been talking about breaking up into multiple states (California) and seceding from the Union (Texas). One imagines that their growing underrepresentation in the Senate will occasion more such fun proposals.

In the meantime, though, I was curious which states are growing the fastest right now, and thus losing per-person Senate representation.

The Senate Has Always Been Wildly Unrepresentative

This is of course the opposite of the way we usually think about population growth and political power. Four of the states on the above list are expected to gain seats in the House of Representatives after the 2020 Census. But the individual residents of those states won’t be gaining much in House clout, while they have clearly been losing out on per-person influence over the Senate.

Meanwhile, residents of the following states have been gaining lots of per-person Senate clout.

The Senate Has Always Been Wildly Unrepresentative

One thing that stands out here is that, while most of the recent complaining about the unrepresentative nature of the Senate has come from Democrats, the states where residents have been losing out lately on Senate clout are mostly Republican-leaning, while those gaining are a pretty even mix of blue, purple and red. The Cook Report’s Wasserman argues in the op-ed piece that inspired this column that this year’s Senate map favors Republicans, and he ought to know. But over the medium to long term it’s not so clear that demographic trends will make the Senate a Republican holdout. In fact, it’s never all that clear what demographic trends portend in electoral politics. The only thing we can be pretty sure of is that the U.S. Senate will remain unrepresentative — just as it has been since the outset.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”

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