Sabato’s More Perfect Framework

Greetings, loyal minions. Your Maximum Leader has long been a subscriber to the UVA Center for Politics newsletters. He reads them with relish and awaits their appearance with some anticipation. Your Maximum Leader will recommend that if you are of a political ilk you might want to sign up for yourself. (Heck, perhaps you should even make a donation to keep the good work going.)

The most recent e-mail from the Center for Politics is plugging Larry Sabato’s newest book, A More Perfect Constitution. Normally, your Maximum Leader isn’t thrilled about books about how you can “improve” the Constitution or the actual mechanics of “the government.” Most of the time they aren’t grounded in anything that remotely resembles reality. This is not to say that Sabato’s book is completely grounded in reality. Your Maximum Leader hasn’t read the book, but he thinks he might. Sabato is a reasonable man with a practical, as well as professorial, outlook.

For your edification, your Maximum Leader will excerpt some of the passage of the email here and provide quick and pithy commentary…

Here is a tidbit about reforming the Senate:

Two principles embraced by the founders about the Senate are worth preserving. Fundamentally, the Senate represents semi-sovereign states, and despite all the changes wrought by time and technology over the centuries, most Americans still identify with and have great devotion to their individual state.

[…]

The second principle was equally dear to the founders. They insisted that the structure of the Senate should protect minority rights from the “tyranny of the majority,” or “mob-ocracy.” The United States was to be a republic, a representative democracy, not a pure democracy run by 50 percent plus one of its residents.

[…]

In the early years of the Republic, the population ratio of the most populated state, Virginia, and the least populated state, Delaware, was 12 to 1. In 2004 that ratio was an incredible 70 to 1 between California and tiny Wyoming. Therefore, the current Senate is absurdly skewed in the direction of the small states. Theoretically, if the twenty-six smallest states held together on all votes, they would control the U.S. Senate, with a total of just under 17 percent of the country’s population!

Additionally, on most crucial policy votes, such as the Iraq resolution example that opened this section, the arcane rules of the Senate permit 41 of the 100 senators to prevent a final vote on the floor by means of a filibuster–that is, continuous debate. Therefore, just 21 states can provide the 41 senators necessary to block action. The 21 most lightly populated states comprise a mere 11.2 percent of the nation’s population as the Senate is currently constituted.

[…]

So how can the animating principles of the Senate be preserved while making the institution fairer to all the people, whether they live in big, medium, or small states? The Senate needs an adjustment that is both simple and potentially acceptable to most small states–in part, because some of them are growing by leaps and bounds, and they will one day benefit from the change. We should give the ten largest states two more Senate seats each, with the next fifteen largest states gaining one additional seat. The twenty-five states with the smallest populations would not forfeit any representation and keep their current two Senate seats. As with seats in the House of Representatives, the Senate seats would be reapportioned among the states, according to this formula, every ten years after the census assesses population changes. From decade to decade, for example, a state might move into the list of the ten largest states and thus be awarded an extra senator; the state dropped from that exclusive list would lose a senator.

The new Senate, then, would consist of 135 members. This change has an additional advantage. With the population of the United States having expanded dramatically (by almost two thirds, in fact) since the current 100-member Senate was established in 1960, the 35 additional senators can assist in meeting the needs of millions of new Americans in their large states. And the cost to the Treasury is relatively little. The smaller states in the new Senate would, individually and collectively, retain plenty of clout. The difference is that the distorted, decidedly unfair world where the Lilliputians rule the Giants would be dissolved.

Before commenting… Let us read Mr. Sabato’s comments on the House…

The founders had great affection for the U.S. House of Representatives and wanted it to be a reliable barometer of popular sentiment, produced by open and competitive elections, with all its members elected every two years. (The number of members was far smaller in their day, but in our time the House has 435 voting members). How sad the founders would be to see the ultra-stable, uncompetitive House of professional politicians that exists today. In 2004 just twenty-two races for U.S. representative in the country were decided by fewer than ten percentage points, and in 2006–supposedly a highly competitive year–only sixty-one contests fell into that category.

[…]

… [T]he Constitution itself must call for universal nonpartisan redistricting. The states should be given a choice of methods, including redistricting by a panel of retired judges or an independent citizens commission–carefully balanced to prevent control by any party…

The goal of increased partisan competition ought to require that, within the demands of compactness, we should create as many two-party competitive districts as possible. This is what Iowa tries to do, quite successfully. Why is this so important? If there is a national swing of just two or three percentage points in the overall House vote from one party to the other in successive elections, then many dozens of seats might switch hands to the more politically successful party, empowering the people to send their electoral messages. At present, a swing of 2 or 3 percent would produce only a handful of party turnovers, in all probability, so that the voters are cheated of their opportunity to affect the governmental policies that affect them.

[…]

Most of the reforms advocated in this book are primarily structural, without a clear leaning to left or right. Others might be considered liberal or progressive, with a few falling squarely in the middle of the road. Yet constructive constitutional change can and must come in all ideological hues. No one philosophy has a monopoly on good ideas, and if a package of amendments is to be ratified–given the extraordinary majorities required for adoption in Congress and the states–there must be backing across the mainstream political continuum. The following proposals, originated mainly by conservatives, ought to be given serious consideration for inclusion in the new Constitution: expanding the size of the U.S. House, term limits for national legislators, and a balanced budget amendment.

The first of these ideas will surprise many. Why would an increase in the size of the U.S. House of Representatives be considered conservative–or be regarded a good thing? As is frequently the case, we need to go back to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. There is every indication that the founders believed the House would grow with the population. At the same time, they no doubt understood that there was some undefined limit to that growth in the House.

Let’s return to the first House of 65 members. With a U.S. population of about 3.9 million, each House member represented approximately 60,000 individuals. By 1860 a larger House of 183 members represented on average about 100,000 people each. After the 1910 census, the size of the House peaked at 435, with each member representing 213,000. Today, each member of the lower house of Congress represents 690,000!

If the new Constitutional Convention were to tackle this issue, it would be vital not to go from one extreme to the other. Based on the original constitutional minimum district size of 30,000 people per House member, we would have a House of 10,000! Some conservatives have argued for a House of 2,000 up to more than 9,000, but more reasonable is the conservative commentator George Will’s suggestion of a 1,000-member House. It may seem counterintuitive that conservative pundits would want to expand this part of government, but the key is in the follow-through. By increasing the size of the House, the influence of most members is thus severely limited. Resources per member, such as personal staff and office space, should also be proportionately reduced.

A larger House would produce much smaller constituencies of 300,000 people or so, permitting representatives to stay in touch with a larger proportion of their districts and also allowing for the election of a more diverse group of representatives. More ethnic, social, racial, and religious groups might well have majorities in these new, smaller districts, and they could elect a House member to carry their banner in Congress. The need for money in order to mount a campaign would be reduced as well.

Your Maximum Leader, as most of you know, is a deeply conservative person. He means this in the sense that he does want to conserve what is good in our society and change (because it will happen) must be slow, incremental, and measured. Your Maximum Leader is particularly conservative when it comes to messing with our Constitution and the framework of our Republic. Indeed, your Maximum Leader has gone on the record often saying how much he likes gridlock in government. So when someone suggests reforms to help make “the government run better” your Maximum Leader is sceptical to begin.

Having said that, and only having read the e-mail with summaries of the book, your Maximum Leader is generally open to the suggestions that Sabato has put forth here. He certainly is in favor of a balanced budget amendment. He has no objection to expanding the size of the House of Representatives. 1,000 members of the lower House seems a little excessive, but frankly the number of Representatives is arbitrary as it is, so there doesn’t appear to be any reason why one should prefer 435 over 1,000 (or 555, or 721, or 999). Your Maximum Leader believes that whatever number you suggest it should be an odd one - just to avoid ties. (Unless you are sure to point out in your rules of procedure that a tie means a vote fails. Some people aren’t clear on that point…)

Your Maximum Leader is a little leery of adding proportional representation, as Sabato — or anyone else, puts it, into the Senate. He sees the point Sabato is making, and he realizes that the composition of the Senate was a political compromise itself; but having a few states have three or four Senators doesn’t sit well with him. He wonders if it is just his conservative nature that doesn’t want to mess it up coming through here. It likely is.

As for term limits… Your Maximum Leader has never been for them. If people want to elect a saint or an asshole over and over and over again, by gum let them! Your Maximum Leader knows all the arguments on boths sides of this issue (he’s been hearing them since the mid 1980s now — they never change). And frankly it just comes down to people should be allowed to vote for whomever they want as many times as they want. Your Maximum Leader would have been against the Twenty-Second Amendment if he’d been alive at the time it was being debated. Frankly, if people scrutinized their elected officials they might be shocked at what they find. Everyone believes that “their” representatives are “great” and “all the others” are “bad.” But if they bothered to read a newspaper, or follow what goes on at all, they would realize that “their” people are just as “bad” as everyone elses.

Your Maximum Leader doesn’t have time for more pithy discourse on this subject now. He will likely try and pick up the book and read the whole thing for himself.

Carry on.

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