One of my major pet peeves about U.S. politics has long been the power of legislatures to set district boundaries for U.S. House districts and state legislative districts. Essentially, the party in power at the time of redistricting gets the added bonus of further entrenching their own power. The subject of redistricting deserves its own post at a later time.
The most important elected body that avoids that fate is the United States Senate. In fact, its design demonstrates its original purpose – a body of elder statesmen somewhat removed from the passions of the people in order to temper what, in the view of our 18th century forefathers, were the sometimes irrational passions of the electorate. While the House of Representatives was to be directly elected by the people every two years, thus ensuring they were frequently measuring where the political winds were blowing in their home district, the Senate was originally elected by state legislatures, and only once every six years at that. A Senator could make an unpopular decision based on his (let’s face it, they were all men then) own well founded judgment with little worry that he would suffer immediate backlash. By the time an election rolled around, the people may have forgotten, and the state legislature could safely ignore the issue by then unless the decision was particularly ruinous.
By 1913, however, thanks to the Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Senators were directly elected by the people of their state. Luckily, however, the Senate remained elected only once every six years, and they were elected by the entire electorate of their state. This continued the tradition of tempering the membership of the Senate compared to the populist House.
Why the history lesson? Well, if you look at the composition of the Senate today, you can see that while hyperpartisanship has affected both houses of Congress today, the Senate still retains some semblance of bipartisanship and moderation. Take a look at some of the members today, after all:
- Rand Paul – Rather than toeing the line for the Republican party, Dr. Paul frequently uses his position in the Senate as a check against more hawkish members of his party. In fact, it was his filibuster yesterday that was the inspiration for this speech. Imagine him trying to buck Republican interests in a House district – you can bet he would be facing a primary challenge.
- Bob Casey – Casey is practically a political unicorn – a pro-life Democrat! Good luck finding one of those in the House today. Democrats for Life of America identified four pro-life Democrats in the House in 2014: Mike McIntyre (chose not to run again) Nick Rahall (lost), Dan Lipinski (won in 2014, but regularly draws primary challengers), and Collin Peterson (his district is nearly a sure-fire Republican win when he retires) . While some have questioned his pro-life commitment at times, he is a Democrat that NARAL has spurred, which puts you in good company in my book.
- Lisa Murkowski – Hers is a very unique case. She was appointed to the Senate in 2002, and elected to a full term in 2004. In 2010, she actually lost in the Republican primary to a Tea Party affiliated candidate, Joe Miller, and then proceeded to run a write-in campaign in the general election. She won, becoming the first member of the Senate to win by write-in in 50 years. While in the Senate, she has regularly worked with Democrats on passing legislation, such the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd hate crimes bill, the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, and announced in 2013 that she has changed her mind on same-sex marriage and now supports it.
There are plenty of other examples of Senators breaking with their party to work with others in the Senate, but the point is that it is the structural differences in the Senate that make such cooperation politically feasible.
Ultimately, the question arises: Is it good that this is limited only to the Senate? Should hyperpartisanship remain a feature of the House of Representatives, or are there ways to soften its impact? There are a few options:
- Encourage states to adopt Redistricting Commissions rather than allowing the state legislature to directly apportion state legislative and House districts. A number of states already utilize such a system, with varying degrees of success. Or, better yet – let a computer do it.
- Enact a constitutional amendment adopting a proportional representation system. Rather than having a “winner take all” system of electing members of the legislature, a proportional representation (PR) system elects a slate of candidates based on the percentage of the votes they receive. This substantially reduces the tendency of our system to produce two major parties, and opens the door to third parties. Granted, this usually creates greater partisanship, but it opens the door to true moderates to have positions of power, as they are no longer pushed out in the primary process. Such a system is also likely to increase voter participation, since even a small number of voters can potentially elect a member to the legislature.
What other options do you see to open the doors to moderation in the U.S. House of Representatives? Or do you think that our current environment is actually beneficial? Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments below, or join the discussion on Facebook.