On a common Senate fallacy

October 11, 2011

Over at The Plum Line, Greg Sargent describes the Senate as ‘out of touch’ over its likely vote-down of a jobs bill:

The key provisions in the jobs bill have strong public support. They are backed by majorities of moderates and independents. Unemployment is basically a national emergency. Yet we’re now at the point where we don’t even know if a simple majority of the Senate will support a sensible, balanced measure to deal with that emergency — Dems can probably only afford to lose two or three defectors — that contains ideas that both parties have supported in the past.

People constantly say things like this when the Senate rejects an idea that seems popular in public opinion. But one simple explanation is often forgotten: the Senate is malapportioned!

Yes, everyone “knows” that, but a lot of times people seem to overlook one of the basic consequences: a Senate vote will often not match aggregate public opinion, even if every single Senator is explicitly following the public opinion of his/her constituents. Unlike the House, which at least theoretically is weighted like a public opinion poll, the structure of the Senate makes no pretense to being a reflection of national public opinion. (Of course, the House can suffer the same problem; any aggregation of district preferences — no matter how perfectly apportioned — could stray from national preferences. But it’s much more pronounced in the Senate).

Now, you can ask Senators to take a Burkean trustee view of representation and vote the national good. That may or may not be warranted in any individual case, including this one. But I think it’s a fallacy to imply in these situations that at least some Senators must be inherently doing something against the wishes of their constituents if national public opinion goes one way and the Senate goes another. The institution, for better or worse, is simply not built that way.


One Response to On a common Senate fallacy

  1. […] A majoritarian Senate might not even be a normative improvement. I’ve said it before, but at the micro-level, the main problem with filibuster reform is that you aren’t […]

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