Don’t Know Much About (Constitutional) History

In an editorial published yesterday after the defeat of Manchin-Toomey, the editors of Bloomberg View bemoaned the filibuster and the fact that even small states have two senators. They claim the “rural bias” of the Senate puts gun control out of reach.

The struggle to enact their plan turned uphill this week, with nearly all Senate Republicans opposing it and even a few red-state Democrats running for cover. The proposal’s demise, in a 54-46 vote, is a testament to legislators’ continuing fear of the gun lobby. It also illuminates a political equation that grows more unbalanced, especially in the Senate, every year. The votes of Wyoming’s two senators, representing 580,000 citizens, effectively cancel the votes of California’s two senators, representing 38 million. The votes of Illinois, with a population of almost 13 million, are voided by those of Alaska, with little more than 700,000.

This is a problem for sensible gun legislation. It is also a problem for American democracy. If the nation’s laws fail to represent the views of the overwhelming majority of its people, representative democracy becomes a shallow and unsustainable exercise.

Just as gun laws have failed to keep pace with the advance of technology — which puts ever greater firepower in the hands of virtually anyone who wants it — the Senate has failed to adapt to the urbanization and suburbanization of the nation, enabling rural representatives to veto the will of an increasingly metropolitan majority. The Senate cannot, and indeed does not, function if 60 votes are the threshold for every proposal.

Turning their logic on its head, I don’t think they would object to the two senators from Vermont, population 626,000, voting for gun control and effectively canceling out the votes of the two senators from Texas, population 25,146,000. Nor would the editors object to the two senators from Delaware, population 898,000, canceling out the pro-gun votes of the senators from Georgia, population 9,688,000.

While I might be able to excuse their lamentations about the failure of the Senate to gun control, there is no excuse for their abysmal ignorance of the Constitution and the history behind its creation which the editors should have learned before they even got to high school.

When representatives from the thirteen states assembled in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation in 1787, the delegates brought with them ideas on how they would like the future government to be structured. James Madison of Virginia brought a plan for a bicameral legislature. The Virginia, or Large State, Plan would have apportioned each house of the legislature based upon population. In response to the Virginia Plan, William Paterson of New Jersey proposed an alternative unicameral legislature with one vote per state. While the New Jersey Plan was rejected in favor of the Virginia Plan, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention finally adopted the Connecticut Compromise which satisfied both large and small states. It is this bicameral legislature that we have today: a House of Representatives apportioned by population and a Senate with two Senators per state.

 The founding fathers were wise in their compromise. The Senate was meant to be a deliberative body somewhat akin to a non-hereditary House of Lords. It was meant to be a bulwark against populist passions. To throw out the filibuster and equal apportionment by state in the name of some ill-conceived claim of discrimination against the urban areas is to trample on the concept of minority rights. I sincerely think the editors of Bloomberg View might want to consider the ramifications of that move.