A few weeks ago, VoxFairfax audaciously proposed that the General Assembly of the Commonwealth could be constituted of 40 members as a unicameral legislature to promote a more efficient legislative process at substantial cost savings, along with a commensurate increase in citizen participation (An Immodest Proposal, 06/30/2019). The article noted that under an independent redistricting plan, a less numerous legislature would be more resistant to unrestrained gerrymandering.
Among reasons for the existence of bicameral legislatures in 49 of the nation’s states may be attributed to an imitation of Congress. Bicameral legislatures also reflect early colonial political thinking that such structures presented a strong defense against being overcome by emotional or radical political movements. That theory supported the British Parliament structure with two houses, one for Lords, the other for Commons. The Lords (landed gentry) would ensure that the Commons would not control the government by way of popular or populist political forces while the landed gentry functioned for the longer run interests of the nation. In colonial America, the Founders recognized some practical barriers, including transportation and travel for legislators and snail communications in the form of newspapers and postal roads moderating the process of communication with the citizenry.
In the US Constitution, the Senate was created as Congress’ House of Lords with two Senators for each of the states of the union. In contrast, it was not dependent upon their populations, as the document prescribed for the House of Representatives which wedded its members to the decennial census. As the nation grew to 50 states, its population ballooned from 3.9 million in the first census in 1790 to approximately 325 million today, not equally distributed among the 50 states. Thus, California counts nearly 40 million residents and Wyoming just under 580,000 but each has two US senators counted toward each state’s Electoral College total. That distorted ratio affects presidential nominations for the Cabinet and seats on the Supreme Court. The Senate is also the jury in cases of impeachment.
In 1913, the 17th Amendment was passed, subjecting members of the Senate to a popular vote, a direct election—in effect, each set of two senators was to be elected at large, within every state. This democratic advance, however, highlighted the representational disparity among the higher and lesser populated states, as noted between California and Wyoming. That distortion carries through crucial issues such as the Electoral College and appointments to the federal bench. The question arises, What if there were no Senate in Congress? What might that mean?
Politically, at present, the Senate is divided between the major political parties with 53 Republicans and 45 Democrats with whom two Independents caucus. An analysis of that division according to population (splitting populations in nine states where each party has one Senator) shows that the 47 Democrats/Independents represent almost 170 million people, while the 53 Republicans represent about 155 million. However, under the Senate’s rules, the majority political party wields the chamber’s enormous, enumerated powers and authority most particularly through the majority leader. This distortion of representation is even more pronounced in view of the fact that the present majority leader received only 806,700 votes in his home state in 2014 to win election.
In more civil eras, this lopsided structure might be said to function as the Founders and their English forbears intended but, in this modern age with advanced transportation and communication capacity, it offends the arc of democratic and popular governance experience of the United States. That arc of progress is marked by a Civil War and its post Constitutional amendments, suffrage for women, and even in the popular election of Senators under the 17th Amendment and a country approaching 100 times its size since its founding. In this light, the 100 member Senate is an anachronism and a frustration of democratic representation in our republic.
A unicameral Congress would delimit the present extraordinary legislative logjam in the Senate and further rationalize or democratize the appointment of federal judges and other officials. . . . [T]he new structure would likely tend to reduce the political bickering, the blame game, that occurs now in a bicameral body where the power of one chamber is out of proportion to its electoral constituency. And one person—the Majority Leader—would no longer be able to hold hostage legislation that a clear majority of the nation desires.
What would be the benefit of a unicameral legislature? A unicameral Congress would delimit the present extraordinary legislative logjam in the Senate and further rationalize or democratize the appointment of federal judges and other officials. No additional power would accrue to a unicameral Congress but the work of the new structure would likely tend to reduce the political bickering, the blame game, that occurs now in a bicameral body where the power of one chamber is out of proportion to its electoral constituency. And one person—the Majority Leader—would no longer be able to hold hostage legislation that a clear majority of the nation desires. And while such a new structure for the nation’s legislature would continue to be at the mercy of gerrymandering in states, the transformation could increase SCOTUS scrutiny of the practice, especially as more states adopt independent and nonpartisan districting bodies.
If the Senate were abolished and its enumerated powers distributed to the House of Representatives, the total membership of Congress could remain static at 535 under a proviso that the 100 Senate seats would be allocated according to the most recent census across the 50 states, resulting in a redistribution of legislative authority to the People’s House in proportion to population—in effect, a unicameral Congress.
Finally, the strategies of the national political parties would have to readjust to campaign in an entirely different manner in order to seek a legislative majority. No longer would political parties be targeting the calculated margin for a 51 seat majority but in competition for a majority of 535. Were the Commonwealth to create a unicameral legislature, it might serve as a model for the nation. Think about it.