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Friday, October 14, 2011
By Steven L. Taylor

Originally written for OTB:

In response to the “Nuclear Option Lite” move my Senate Majority Leader Reid to use a majority vote to change the rules over a particular type of amendment at a specific moment in the legislative process, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell stated on the floor:  “We are fundamentally turning the Senate into the House” and “The minority’s out of business.”

Now, hyperbole on the floor of a legislative chamber is hardly a new thing in the annals of politics.  Further, it is likely that McConnell knew full well that he was exaggerating, to put it mildly.  However, this is hardly either “turning the Senate into the House” and the minority remains firmly in business.

First, it needs to be understood that the motion to change the rules in this case was targeted on a very specific parliamentary maneuver and is hardly filibuster reform. It does demonstrate the mechanism (which has acquired the popular appellation “Nuclear Option”) by which the majority could substantially alter the filibuster over the objections of the minority.  However, there is a lot less here than that (the exact discussion of what happened and why deserves another post).  As such, McConnell’s statement is not just hyperbole, but hyperbole squared (he said, risking sounding hyperbolic).

Second, even if we take McConnell’s hyperbole at face value, the fact of the matter remains that a Senate operating under basic majority rules would hardly be the House.  This is rather easy to demonstrate by some basic numbers.  If we look at the current Senate and the 2010 Census figures for state populations we find that the representational scheme in the Senate is, as should be obvious, substantially different than that in the House, which means that the kinds of outcomes one is likely to get from a majority-base Senate would still be rather different than the House).

To wit:  The top 25 states in population contains 257,763,289 persons, or 83.65% of the population of the states.  The bottom 25 states in population contains 50,380,536 persons, or 16.35% of the population of the states (such numbers exclude residents in DC, Puerto Rico and other territories).

To put it simply:

Top 50% of Senate represents 83.65% of the population of the states.

Bottom 50% of Senate represents 16.35% of the population of the states.

So, even if the Senate operated by majority votes the same way the House does, the relative power of huge chunks of the population (and their interests) are represented rather differently in the Senate than in the House.  And yes, I do understand that partisan factors change this dynamic from a large v. small state one to one of red v. blue states.  Of course, it is worth noting that co-equal representation of the states gives the Republicans a representational edge relative in the Senate.  This is a structural advantage in the Senate given that, as we know, more rural states (i.e., small-to-mid-ranger pop. states)  tend to be more conservative/Republican leaning and large metropolitan areas (i.e., often in larger pop. states) tend to lean liberal/Democratic.  The smaller, rural states grow slowly, yet retain their two Senators while the metro areas tend to grow at a faster rate, yet the states with state metro areas also retain their two Senators.  The extreme, yet real, example:  California (with its 37,253,956)  will grow at a faster rate than Wyoming (with its 563,626) and yet they will continue to have the same amount of power in the Senate (majority rules or not).

Having said all of that, it has to be understood that changing the rules on just one delaying tactic is hardly a radical transformation of the Senate.  Now, it could spark a wider fight that might, over time, lead to significant rules changes.  But even then, the Senate would be rather unlikely to become the House.  The differences between the House and Senate are not so simple that they can be reduced to the House functions under majoritarian rules and the Senate functions under supermajority rules (effectively of late, anyway).  There is a long list of rules and processes that would have to replicated in the Senate to make it the House.  This cannot be stressed enough:  the differences between the House and Senate are far more complicated than simply the majority/supermajority issue.  We also have to understand that the last decade or so has seen a substantial increase in the minority using these mechanisms to block basic business.  As such, we have seen the Senate operate far more under majority rule for much of its history and it hardly looked like the House in terms of operation.

Quite frankly, I would welcome a fight over the rules of the Senate, as the status quo is unacceptable if we actually want the Congress to be functional.  The chamber needs reform to its rules, and it will likely take a fight to spark changes (such is the way of politics).

A parting number:  under the current rules it is possible for a coalition of the 20 least populated states plus one Senator from the next least populated state to have the 41 votes needed to block Senate action.  This coalition would represent all of 10.8% of the population of the states.

Filed under: OTB,US Politics | Comments Off|
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