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Fix The Senate! (Elections) May 20, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in politics.
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Specter is out. Sestak is in. At least until November. At that time, he might be out too. Who did I vote for? Not telling.

The final margin was relatively large—8 points. And the victory went against the endorsement of the Democratic establishment, including POTUS BO, The Gov, and many Pennsylvania newspapers. What does this mean? Did the voters get it wrong? Did the Democratic political machine get it wrong? Do Democrats—and people in general—resent being told who to vote for? No. No. And hell no!

The voters voted for their man. Why? Who knows. Maybe they saw Specter’s party-switch as overly self-serving. Maybe they thought Sestak had a better chance to prevail in November. Maybe they got tired of Specter and wanted a new face. Maybe they believed that as effective as Specter has been, Sestak—the darling of the Pennsylvania Democratic committee before Specter switched sides—will be even more so. Maybe they feared that Specter is too old and may not last through another six-year term forcing a Massachusetts-style special election. Maybe they shared a birthday with Sestak. Probably, it was a combination of these things.

POTUS BO pitched for his man. What else could he do? Back the challenger? Please! First, by switching parties, Specter did BO a huge favor, helping to push across much of the legislation of the past year. BO would have looked the ingrate if he didn’t back him. Second, if Specter would have won, BO would have looked the fool and had an enemy in the Senate for the next six years. Heck, he would have had an enemy in the Senate for the next nine months regardless who would have won. POTUS BO was just playing the game they all play. The political machine is all about the incumbents. Until they lose. And then it’s about the new incumbents. The incumbent is dead! Long live the incumbent!

Finally, it’s a common mis-conception that people don’t want to be told who to vote for. People do, in fact, want to be told who to vote for. Just as they want to be told many other things. The mental toll of figuring out who to vote for—accumulated over that of many other decisions—is high. Being told who to vote for by a reliable source is easier. I wanted to be told who to vote for! Thank god the Internet was there to tell me!

But onto the real subject of this blog. And yes, it took me 419 words to get here. Get over it. If the past year has shown us anything, it’s that the Senate is dysfunctional. Structurally, it may have been not such a bad idea 250 years ago, when the largest state (Virginia) was only nine times as populous as the smallest (Rhode Island and Providence Plantations). And it may have been necessary to get Delaware and RIPP to join the union. But with current demographics—California has 69 times the population of Wyoming—it makes less sense. Senators from de-populated states are the most powerful people in the US. They represent a tiny constituency but control key swing votes. And they serve longer terms than presidents with no term limits! The incumbency machine makes Senators from de-populated states de facto kings! And some of them—see Ted Stevens of Alaska or former VPOTUS Dick Cheney of Wyoming—behave as if they were kings!

What is to be done about this? Sadly nothing. A US government in which North Dakota has only one Senator is probably not going to happen. If there is one thing North Dakotans love, it’s their Senators. But perhaps something can be done about the biannual churn which essentially paralyzes the government for six months every other year. Under the current constitutional setup, Senators serve an unlimited number of six-year terms with one third of the members up for re-election every two years. Assuming election season including primaries lasts eight months, then 33.3% of the time, one third of the Senate is in an election cycle. For a body that is effectively so evenly divided—sixty votes is the new majority or haven’t you heard—and in which votes must often be squeezed from the marble columns, that is too much. 33.3% of the time, the Senate is legislating by electoral politics rather than by policy. Don’t believe me? Ask Arlen!

Here’s what I propose. Senate terms should be extended to eight years and limited to a total of three. Senate elections should be held every fourth year, in phase with presidential elections. This means that again 33.3% of the Senate will be up for re-election during a given election season, but elections will occur half as frequently and in step with presidential elections when nothing happens anyway, or at least nothing good. Arguably, the Senate is the most critical governmental resource and Senators are the most powerful people in government. Shouldn’t increase the efficiency with which the Senate legistlates and reduce the effects of electoral politics as much as we can?

P.S. I know, I know. Congressmen serve two-year terms and therefore are locked in re-election battles 33.3% of their time. Isn’t House churn a problem? Shouldn’t we fix House elections too? Not really. First, the House more closely represents US demographics and the artifact of Congressperson-from-de-populated-district-as-king doesn’t really exist. With the exception of a few, e.g.Nancy Pelosi, individual Congresspeople are significantly less powerful than Senators and cannot hold bills or their parties hostage in exchange for pork. Second, districts are so gerrymandered that most incumbent Congresspeople run unopposed. In the 7th district, Brian Lentz—who was not even an incumbent—presumably ran against Terese Touey. Only Lentz appeared on the ballot on Tuesday. Effectively, only 10% of Congress is up for re-election 33.3% of the time. And 10% is usually lower than the margin by which bills pass in Congress.

P.P.S. I’m sorry, but unless I don’t know what a “barrel” is—42 gallons?—this doesn’t look like 8,000 barrels a day to me!

P.P.P.S. The Talented Mr. Ripley he’s not.

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