Balancing Checks

As noted in earlier posts here, checks and balances are at the heart of American democracy. Our government was consciously designed to provide resistance when any one entity attempted to gain too much power. Being under the thumb of a tyrannical monarch will tend to make people think a bit more about this type of thing. One of the most fundamental examples of checks and balances is our bicameral legislature – a.k.a. The House and The Senate.

The House emphasizes the power of the people by volume: the more people in your state, the more Representatives you get. Of course, in practice, nothing is immune to human lust for power, so there is a never-ending battle within each state to redefine who gets counted where.

The Senate emphasizes the power of the state: every single state gets exactly two Senators. Or to paraphrase Monty Python, the number of the counting shall be two. Three is right out!

It really can’t be overstated how important this particular balance has been, with the House serving (more or less) as the voice of the people, and the Senate playing a pivotal role in protecting the sovereignty of the individual states. What that has meant has shifted over time. It began with the original Constitution, which specified that Senators would be elected by the state legislatures. The vast majority of the framers of the Constitution believed this was the best way to ensure truly comprehensive representation: the House represented the interests of the “common folk” and the Senate represented the interests of the “better informed” by virtue of leaving elections to those who were already engaged in political discourse. This very closely matches what the United Kingdom still does to this day: a House of Commons and a House of Lords. But in the U.S. Senate, the “House of Lords” must be re-elected every six years.

The arrangement worked out all right for a little while, but guess what, it became increasingly corruptible. You can’t take us anywhere. There were a couple of key problems – which amazingly didn’t rear their ugly heads as often as one might expect. First, there was a perception – and sometimes a matching reality – that state legislatures were electing U.S. Senators in smoke-filled rooms without any true accountability to the needs of each state. The second issue was the potential for deadlock; if a state legislature couldn’t decide as a majority on their next Senator, the seat simply remained open. This happened for years in a couple of cases. Momentum built into the late 1800’s to solve the problem with a Constitutional Amendment, and the House was always in favor at that point – consistently passing the resolution in every session as the Senate subsequently ignored it each time. It wasn’t until a bunch of Senators who opposed the measure were ousted that the tide changed for good. It was proposed for the last time in 1912 and ratified in 2013:

Clause 1. The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote. The electors in each State shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the State legislatures. 

Clause 2. When vacancies happen in the representation of any State in the Senate, the executive authority of each State shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided That the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.

Clause 3. This amendment shall not be so construed as to affect the election or term of any Senator chosen before it becomes valid as part of the Constitution.

While the 17th Amendment changed the way our Senators are elected, it did not change the fundamental ideas of balance between the two houses of Congress, and balance between the federal government and the states. Who has the advantage in this system has evolved over time. When the 17th Amendment first passed, it protected a number of Democratic Senators. But today, power to the states (i.e., the Senate) is probably the only reason the Democrats do not control both houses. Regardless of your affiliation, consider the dynamics of the 2018 midterm elections. A very large number of House seats switched parties to the Democrats – signaling the will of the “common folk”. But the Senate actually increased in Republican control – signaling the will of the “states”. This isn’t very complicated: red states like Idaho and North Dakota get just as many Senators as blue states like New York and California. And right now there are simply more red states than blue states. On the flip side, state sovereignty is what allows blue states to resist the current Senate and President. To now quote Sting, “regardless of ideology”, we should treasure the checks and balances of our government. They play a massive role in preventing ANY of us from getting carried away.

It’s all the same when you get right down to it.
Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay