If Americans decided to change the Senate from a body that represents states (two Senators per state) to a representative body (on the principle of “one citizen one vote”), it’s not as simple as adopting a constitutional amendment to modify Article I Section 3, which specifies that the Senate will be composed of two Senators per state. This is because Article V, which delineates the procedures and rules for amending the Constitution, specifies that no state will be denied equal suffrage in the Senate without its consent. Faced with this intentional roadblock to changing the makeup of the Senate, we are left with the following possibilities:
- We could propose an amendment to change the makeup of the Senate, and get every one of the 50 states to adopt it – probably an impossible hurdle, since at least one state with a small population would almost certainly object, and an objection from any single state would nullify this approach.
- We could possibly amend Article V, rewriting the procedures for amending the Constitution and removing the sentence that guarantees equal representation in the Senate for each state. After that amendment is adopted, we could then proceed to adopt another amendment to change the makeup of the Senate. Of course, the problem with that solution is that the Supreme Court might very well hold that the Amendment to Article V is itself unconstitutional unless it were ratified by all 50 states.
- We could amend the Constitution to reduce the powers of the Senate, so that, even as the Senate remained unrepresentative, this wouldn’t matter so much. For example, rather than requiring the Senate to pass all legislation before it becomes law, we could give the Senate only the power to block a law passed by the House, provided that the Senate rejects that law by a 2/3 majority within 30 days after it is passed by the House. Many other similar measures could be used to reduce the Senate’s role. (This was the type of change the British used to reduce the power of the very unrepresentative House of Lords.) While this approach has merit, we might end up with a unicameral legislature, with none of the checks and balances which a bicameral legislature provides.
- We could eliminate the Senate all together. This is cleaner than method 3, but still leaves us with a unicameral legislature, subject to the whims of the voters every two years, and without the benefits of a bicameral legislature. Having two bodies, one designed to change laws quickly in response to public opinion, the other designed to operate more slowly and carefully, is probably a good feature of the American system.
- We could eliminate the Senate all together, but replace it with a new body, whose makeup would be representative of the people. This is the approach favored by this author, and I even have a name in mind: the Chamber of Deputies.
The Chamber will be a representative body, made up of Deputies elected for six-year terms. The number of Deputies for each state equals the number of that state’s Representatives divided by 5, with fractions always rounded up. Thus states with one to five Representatives in the House get one Deputy; states with six to ten Representatives get two Deputies; those with 11 to 15 Representatives get three Deputies; and so on. The following table shows the allocation of Deputies to the 50 states, based on the apportionment of Representatives following the 2010 Census. It also shows the number of people represented by each Deputy, and the ratio of power of each person in the state to the power of the people in the state with the highest number of people per Deputy (defined as 1.0). Finally, the table shows that the Chamber of Deputies would have 110 Deputies, not much different from the current Senate:
|Apportioning Seats in the Chamber of Deputies|
|State||Reps in House||Depu-ties||2010 Census||Population per Deputy||Relative Power|
The power inequalities of the Senate have been largely corrected in this suggested makeup of the Chamber. Rather than a worst case of 66 to 1 (the exorbitant relative power of voters in Wyoming to voters in California in the current Senate), the worst case in the new Chamber would be 7 to 1 (Wyoming to Oklahoma or Oregon).
One of the purposes of the Senate, as established by the Founding Fathers, was to be a more deliberative body, as a counterweight to the House, which was expected to be elected directly by the people every two years and thus to be more responsive to the changing views of the citizenry. For this reason, Senate terms were fixed at six years, with a third of the Senate elected every two years. Change would therefore come to the Senate more slowly than to the House.
The Chamber of Deputies should follow exactly the same scheme, with a third of the Deputies elected every two years, and with staggered elections for Deputies from the same state. The only issue occurs when a state gains or loses a Deputy as a result of the decennial census. This can be easily handled as follows:
- When a state loses a Deputy as a result of re-apportionment, the Deputy whose term of office next expires simply is not replaced.
- When a state gains a Deputy, the additional seat is filled at the next biennial election, and the term of office for the new Deputy is either two, four, or six years, depending on how it fits into the scheme of staggered terms for the Deputies within a state.
It should be noted that few changes in the number of Deputies apportioned to a state can be expected. For example, if this system had been in place beginning in 2000, then only Florida and Texas (asterisked in the table above) would have seen an increase of one Deputy as a result of the 2010 reapportionment, and no state would have experienced a decrease. Therefore, this system is rather stable.
The makeup of the US Senate, as prescribed in Article I of the Constitution, is far from representative. In a representative democracy we should not forever retain a construct in which half of the national legislature fails to properly represent the American population. Many solutions to this problem present themselves, but only a radical solution such as the Chamber of Deputies solves the challenge of Article V. The advantage of this proposal is that it builds on and largely retains many features of the current Senate, including its continued dependence on state elections and six-year terms of office, while also accommodating future population shifts as reflected in the census. We should carefully consider potential solutions and move forward on one of them.