While there seems to be some growing intellectual consensus in support of slightly reforming Senate rules to modestly reduce obstructionism, the idea of returning the Senate to its original intent of a majority rule chamber is still labeled too radical. In reality there is nothing radical about merely bringing back the original Senate rule that allows a simple majority to end debate. Actual radical reform would be completely eliminating the Senate and making the country a more egalitarian democracy, with the House as a unicameral legislature.
Even though eliminating the Senate actually fits the textbook definition of “radical,” being a drastic political change, it is, in fact, an extremely sensible policy. Many successful democracies including New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Israel function just fine with a single legislative chamber.
The Senate’s original function is almost meaningless now
Over the last 200 years, the main justification for the Senate, that it would protect the small states from the large states, has lost its importance. Originally, we were more a collection of semi-autonomous entities, where most people felt loyalty to their state. Now, 235 years later, we are a truly integrated nation where most people feel their primary loyalty to the nation as a whole. I doubt anyone really believes without the Senate, the California and Texas delegation would team up to screw over Wyoming and Vermont.
The Senate has become progressively less fair over the last two hundred years.
On the other hand, the main problem of the Senate, that it gives citizens of small states more power than citizens of large states, has gotten dramatically worse. In 1790, the largest State, Virginia, had a population just under 12 times the size of the smallest, Delaware. In the latest census, California had a population 66 times that of Wyoming, yet both states each get two senators. In 1790, states with only 29 percent of the population could elect a majority in the Senate. Today, states with just 16 percent of the population election half the senators.
Merging the House and the Senate
Of course, if completely eliminating the Senate is too radical, we could merge the two chambers into one. After all, our House of Representatives is relatively small for a large democracy. We could guarantee every state had at least three members in the 535-member federal unicameral legislature. Two of these members would be elected at-large for six-year terms. This way, the small states are assured decent representation without the system being extremely unfair.
Unfortunately, the range of systemic reforms considered part of legitimate debate in our politics has become so incredibly narrow as to be almost nonexistent. When a modest reform, like simply bringing back the Senate’s original rule allowing a majority to end debate, is labeled too radical, sensible suggestions to make this a much fairer democracy are totally outside the bounds of discussion.
We have seen the same pattern everywhere, whether it be health care reform, financial regulator reform, electoral reform, climate change legislation, campaign finance reform or systemic governmental reform. What is part of the legitimate debate extends from maintaining the status quo to moving just inches off the status quo.