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Why Do We Need Senates?


(This appeared in the Roanoke Times on Sunday, 17 January 2010)

In this winter of winters, two things are blowing across Virginia from the west: cold weather and the hint of political reform. Driven by its fiscal crisis and the byzantine political system that helped create it, California is in the midst of a profound debate about constitutional reform. Meanwhile, the deal cut with Nebraska Senator Bill Nelson to ensure the passage of the health bill in the U.S. Senate has energized the chattering classes as the nation’s op-ed pages and blogs continue to brim with consternation. How could the senate justify giving Nebraska special treatment in order to get the health care bill passed? Is this a Faustian bargain? Should we repair the Senate?

Actually, nothing is wrong with the Senate. The securing of Sen. Nelson’s vote represents nothing short of the smooth working of the American constitutional and political system. The founding fathers expected this to happen—take a look at James Madison’s discussion of pluralist politics in Federalist 10.

The federal Senate was designed to ensure that smaller states would retain influence in a large country. Since all states have equal representation in the Senate, cutting deals with small ones to get legislation passed is the constitutional cost of doing business.

While the U.S. Senate can therefore be justified in terms of protecting the smaller states, the same cannot be said about state senates. While long ago, state senates may have served important purposes in representing counties or discrete regional interests, they have not served that purpose since the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the one person, one vote rule applied to both houses of the states’ legislatures.

I doubt any observer of the map of Virginia’s Senate districts would conclude that the district lines were drawn in order to protect any identifiable or discrete interest. Every 10 years the senate districts (and the house of delegates districts) are redrawn to suit the interests of the party controlling each house. As a result, the Commonwealth can appear to be Democratic in one house and Republican in another—even though the same voters are voting.

So, why do we need two legislative chambers?

No, really. I mean no disrespect towards any member of our legislature. Our elected officials are bona fide citizen-legislators–they are not a class professional politicians. Depending on the year, the regular legislative session is only 30 or 60 days long. Our elected officials leave Richmond to live and work among their constituents as fellow citizens. They don’t get paid much. Our state senators make $14,000 for their troubles and the delegates make a bit less. They are noble public servants. If one wants to get rich, a general assembly salary won’t get you very far.

But, still…

If we sit back and look at Virginia’s government, a two-house legislature now seems to be redundant if not extravagant or unnecessary. We have an independent governor and a Supreme Court. Either one of them has the power to check the legislature. Why then, do we still need to render the legislature inefficient and slow by splitting its powers in two?

According to the General Assembly’s website, in 2009 and 2010, the Senate’s operating budget was $14.2 million and about $15 million, respectively. Corresponding figures for the House of Delegates were $24.1 million and $25.3 million. When cast in terms of the overall statewide budget (which approaches $50 billion), these figures are, indeed drops in the bucket. But, at a time when outgoing Gov. Kaine looked to trim a billion dollars from the state budget, the Senate’s price tag becomes more considerable. Virginians pay for 100 delegates and 40 senators and the staff, supplies, heat, running water etc. to support them. Could we not live with 100 or 40? Could we split the difference and reorganize the legislature into one chamber with 120 seats?

Ironically, it is Nebraska—the source of all the sturm and drang about the health care bill and the need to repair the U.S. Senate–that provides a compass for this discussion. It is the one state in the union that does not have a bicameral legislature. It has a legislature comprised of 49…senators. Regardless of what Nebraskans call their legislators, they only have one legislative chamber and the state runs just fine.

Moving from a bicameral to a unicameral legislature would reduce the cost of government and remove one layer of redundant legislative wrangling. It would diminish the costs of decennial redistricting and gerrymandering. It would present a clearer voice of the people and offer a clearer counterbalance to the governor. It would make Virginia government more efficient.

It is not about to happen.

Changing the structure of the legislature would require a constitutional amendment. This requires either a constitutional convention or a majority vote in two consecutive sessions of both legislative houses before submitting it to the voters. Call me cynical, but I can’t yet conceive of a scenario that would lead either house to dissolve itself.

Still, political reform is in the air. As I write this, the op-ed pages continue to ooze concerns about the U.S. Senate and health care. On our pacific coast, California is in the midst of constitutional reform. It’s as good a time as any for Virginians to think about their own government and ask if we can’t make some changes.

Mark Rush is Head of the Department of Politics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington.

1 Comment

  1. WES says:

    Compelling post…I guess the answer to whether or not we “need” Senates comes down to what their role is at the state level. If a state's residents look to their statehouse for the efficient and rapid passage of legislation as opposed to the slow-by-design federal Senate, then one-stop shopping via a unicameral system makes sense. But then I imagine that the residents of different states would have different answers to just how much governing they want done, period, and how quickly.

    The other side of the coin is “just how much do state senates contribute” or “what would be lost, really, by getting rid of state senates?” That's a question that would require some quantitative measure of what they contribute to the legislative process (ie how much interference with lower house bills, how many bills originating in the upper chamber, which version of a bill wins out most frequently in conference, etc). And another unknown is just how the smaller, more intimate atmosphere of the upper house affects the process as a whole.

    Lots of good dissertation topics there, I suppose. Upper houses are definitely an interesting institution to question and examine now that their former regional purpose is kaput.

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