Current problems of U.S. Senate rooted in history, says author

The electoral college isn't the only outdated political system that should be overhauled, according to a political scientist who says the antiquated ways of the United States Senate contribute to Congressional gridlock and thwart American democracy.

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The gravest threat to fair representation is the mandate that each state elect two senators to the U.S. Senate regardless of population, a system that has created "perhaps the most unrepresentative legislative chamber in the world," says Daniel Wirls, a professor of politics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and coauthor of the new book The Invention of the United States Senate (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).

The current system "underrepresents racial minorities and overrepresents the economic minority" because it is weighted in favor of small, more agricultural, and predominantly white states, says Wirls.

"We have a system that gives California--population 36 million--the same number of senators as South Dakota--population 755,000," he says. "It's a grotesque misrepresentation, and by all indications it's only going to get worse as people move out of the central plains states."

Wirls's book, coauthored with his brother Stephen Wirls, an associate professor of political science at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, fills a gap in the historical record by telling the story of the origins of the Senate before, during, and after the Constitutional Convention of 1787. By immersing themselves in the historical debate around the creation of the Senate and the precedents that were established in its formative years, the authors discovered the roots of some of today's most stubborn political obstacles.

"It's like the electoral college," he says. "We saw after the 2000 election that it should be changed, but no one has taken up the challenge yet. The Senate is similar. It's a very distorted form of representation that has no justification in a modern democracy. We would never design it this way if given the chance to start over. I don't think the same thing can be said about the House, President, or Supreme Court."

The formula for Senate representation was the product of a political compromise more than 200 years ago and should be revisited, says Wirls.

Under the bicameral system, the Senate was intended to be a smaller, more deliberative body than the population-based House of Representatives. Senators would serve longer terms than their House counterparts and would have greater executive responsibilities. The Senate's system of representation was designed to protect states rights, a notion that Wirls contends was illfounded at the time and has since become irrelevant.

During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, fearing that the largest states would dominate the new federal government, delegates sought to avoid undue influence by giving states equal representation in the senate. "Even then, it wasn't clear what states rights they thought might be trampled, but they were fearful," says Wirls. "They thought Southern states were going to get big, but they were wrong."

Indeed, the founding fathers considered a population-based formula that would have granted each state between one and five senators, says Wirls, who believes such a system would have been more socially just.

Many of today's political ills have institutional origins that date way back, including partisan use of the filibuster to thwart legislation and derail Senate consideration of presidential appointments. Such use of the filibuster is an outgrowth of a formal mechanism called cloture that was introduced during World War I to allow senators to limit debate on a particular question.

"Ironically, a tool that was intended to increase efficiency has become the most effective way to obstruct the Senate's business," says Wirls. "It entrenched the power of the few and gave even individual senators a stranglehold on the legislative agenda."

Understanding the historical roots of contemporary problems can stimulate discussion about ways to improve government, says Wirls. Although the Senate's mechanisms of doing business have "unbelievably durable consequences," he says, they are not immune to change.


Editor's Note: Daniel Wirls can be reached at (831) 459-2134 or via e-mail at