An argument for change

A few weeks ago freshman Senator Ben Sasse from Nebraska made what is called his “maiden speech” on the Senate floor, and it was a thoughtful critique of the Senate’s rules and the partisan arguments that the body has devolved to.

He cited a number of Senate icons: Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who Sasse praised for his curious nature; Margaret Chase Smith, who was unafraid to question those in her own party – even when she agreed with them on principle; and Robert Byrd, who cared most about the Senate as an institution. I realize this is about a 30-minute speech, but you can break away from the Ravens or Redskins game today to take the time to listen – and avoid having the foibles of those two losing teams spike your blood pressure.

In all seriousness, though, two of the points Sasse makes regard the constant travel and fundraising as well as the reflexive talking points they need to recite to create soundbites for the voters back home. It’s really not supposed to be that way, and to me Sasse’s speech can be part of an argument I have made over the last several years.

When you consider what the legislative branch was originally supposed to be, it’s clear that the House was supposed to be of the people, who, if they found out the person they sent to represent them was a scoundrel, only had to wait two years to toss them out. To those who argued at our formation, it seemed like an appropriate enough time for representatives to establish themselves and still be accountable.

On the other hand, Sasse notes that an argument was made by some of the writers of the Constitution that Senators should have lifetime terms. As it was, they agreed Senators should have lengthier tenures of six years.

Yet the key differences between the House and Senate as originally applied was the latter’s equal representation from each state and their selection by the respective state legislatures rather than the voters. Each state, regardless of population, was entitled to two members of the Senate – it was the result of a compromise between larger states which thought they should have a larger share of the say in our affairs and smaller states which felt like they should get their voices heard as well. Thus, little Delaware and its fewer than 60,000 inhabitants at the time would have equal status in one house of the legislature with Virginia, which had a population over ten times greater. While we now have the concept of one person, one vote for our states to abide by in all their legislative bodies, including their equivalents to the national House and Senate, the Senate was excepted.

Prior to the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, the Senate was inhabited by whichever two people the state legislature deemed worthy for the job – thus, you had statesmen and scoundrels alike, with absenteeism an ongoing issue. As part of the Progressive movement of the early twentieth century, direct election of Senators by the people was proposed and ratified. Fast forward a century and what do you find? Statesmen and scoundrels, who now have to hustle for campaign cash to be re-elected every six years and don’t always show up, either. While the argument can be made that the Senate is far more accountable now, it doesn’t seem to give the people any more faith in Congress. So why not revert back to the old way?

For one thing, we’ve seen the interests of states recede in our political system. More and more, the states are becoming simple lines on a map that give out different colored license plates because the federal government runs roughshod over their interests. Indeed, there is a Constitutional supremacy of the federal government but this should stop at affairs each state should be equipped to handle on its own.

Sasse alluded to the short-term thinking of the Senate in this era, and that’s also reflected in the body’s makeup. Several successive “wave” elections have radically changed its makeup, reflecting voter preference of the day: the leftist tide that ejected the Republican majority and brought Barack Obama to office at the end of last decade yielded to the rightward TEA Party wave that retook the House for Republicans in 2010 and the Senate four years later. Had the Senate been insulated from the fickle nature of the voter, change would have been more gradual. Certainly, ascending Republican fortunes on a state level would be gradually shifting the Senate rightward, but at a slower pace.

Restoring the pre-Seventeenth Amendment method of selecting Senators would also make state legislative elections far more important, as chances would be great that at least one Senator would come up for reappointment during a term. States that value diversity, moreover, could make their own waves with their appointments and not leave it to the will of the voters. Also, without the worry about advocating a politically incorrect viewpoint – lest their opponents make a campaign commercial out of it – Senators would be more free to speak their minds and engage in the style of debate Sasse advocates.

It’s generally the Left which advocates for getting money out of politics, so what better way would there be than to take the direct election process for Senators out of the hands of the voters entirely? Just in Maryland alone, it’s a certainty that the candidates running for the open Senate seat on the ballot next year will spend $15 million or more to get through a contested primary and general election because they have to secure more votes (at least in the Democratic primary, where much of that $15 million will be spent) than Sen. John Barasso did to easily win his 2012 election in Wyoming. To keep his Senate seat from Wyoming, Barasso got 184,531 votes – that total would have placed him a distant second in the 2012 Democratic Senate primary here in Maryland, let alone being an also-ran in the general election. And Maryland, in turn, is small potatoes compared to states like California, Texas, or Florida.

This may seem like a counter-intuitive argument to make from one who has forcefully argued that our local school board should be elected for accountability’s sake. But I agree with Sasse that the bureaucracy in the federal government has become its fourth branch, one which is contributing to the imbalance between the legislature and executive branches. Currently we have an executive run amok, although he’s just the latest in a string to do so. It’s a philosophy expressed by the phrase attributed to Clinton advisor Paul Begala: “Stroke of the pen. Law of the land. Kinda cool.”

Directly or indirectly, the people were made responsible for at least a portion of two of the three branches of government, electing a House of Representatives and a slate of presidential electors that rarely stray from the party line of how the state as a whole voted. Their interests were balanced out by the states, represented in the Senate, and the judiciary which wasn’t selected by the people but by the executive with the permission of the Senate. (This insulated them from undue influence.)

In the manner of “progress” we have moved to a system where Senators are just another class of politicians. Certainly I have my favorites among the group, but as a whole I think we may be better served by going back to the original system. We realized the mistake of the amendment following the direct election of Senators (Prohibition) and repealed it in short order, so there is precedent for removing this error as well. Let’s bring back the balance.

A radical proposal (or two)

I got to thinking the other day – yes, I know that can be a dangerous thing – about the 2014 electoral map for Maryland and an intriguing possibility.

Since State Senator E.J. Pipkin resigned a few months back, a sidebar to the story of his succession – as well as that of selecting a replacement for former Delegate Steve Hershey, who was elevated to replace Pipkin – is the fact that Caroline County is the lone county in the state without resident representation. However, with the gerrymandering done by the O’Malley administration to protect Democrats and punish opponents, it’s now possible the 2015 session could dawn with four – yes, four – counties unrepresented in that body based on the 2012 lines. Three of those four would be on the Eastern Shore, and would be a combination of two mid-Shore counties and Worcester County, with the fourth being Garrett County at the state’s far western end.

Granted, that scenario is highly unlikely and there is probably a better chance all 23 counties and Baltimore City will have at least one resident member of the General Assembly. But what if I had an idea which could eliminate that potential problem while bolstering the hands of the counties representing themselves in Annapolis?

The current composition of the Maryland Senate dates from 1972, a change which occurred in response to a 1964 Supreme Court decision holding that Maryland’s system of electing Senators from each county violated the Fourteenth Amendment. Furthermore, Marylanders had directly elected their state Senators long before the Seventeenth Amendment was passed in 1913. Over time, with these changes, the Senate has become just another extension of the House of Delegates, just with only a third of the membership.

So my question is: why not go back to the future and restore our national founders’ intent at the same time?

What if Maryland adopted a system where each county and Baltimore City were allotted two Senators, but those Senators weren’t selected directly by the voters? Instead, these Senators would be picked by the legislative body of each county or Baltimore City, which would give the state 48 Senators instead of 47. Any tie would be broken by the lieutenant governor similar to the way our national vice-president does now for the United States Senate.

Naturally the Democrats would scream bloody murder because it would eliminate their advantage in the state Senate; based on current county government and assuming each selects two members of their own party the Senate would be Republican-controlled. But that would also encourage more voting on local elections and isn’t that what Democrats want? It’s probably a better way to boost turnout than the dismal failure of “early and often” voting, which was supposed to cure the so-called ailment of poor participation.

If someone would argue to me that my proposal violates “one man, one vote” then they should stand behind the repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment. How is it fair that I’m one of 2,942,241 people (poorly) represented by Ben Cardin or Barbara Mikulski while 283,206 people in Wyoming are far more capably represented by John Barasso or Mike Enzi? We have counties in Maryland more populous than Wyoming.

No one questions the function or Constitutionality of the U.S. Senate as a body, knowing it was part of a compromise between larger and smaller states in the era of our founding. It’s why we have a bicameral legislature which all states save one copied as a model. (Before you ask, Nebraska is the holdout.) What I’ve done is restored the intent of those who conceived the nation as a Constitutional republic with several balances of power.

But I’m not through yet. If the Senate idea doesn’t grab you, another thought I had was to rework the House of Delegates to assure each county has a representative by creating seats for a ratio of one per 20,000 residents. (This essentially equals the population of Maryland’s least-populated county, Kent County. Their county could be one single House district.) In future years, the divisor could reflect the population of the county with the least population.

The corollary to this proposal is setting up a system of districts which do not overlap county lines, meaning counties would subdivide themselves to attain one seat per every 20,000 of population, give or take. For my home county of Wicomico, this would translate into five districts and – very conveniently as it turns out – we already have five ready-drawn County Council districts which we could use for legislative districts. Obviously, other counties would have anywhere from 1 to 50 seats in the newly expanded House of Delegates. Even better, because the counties would have the self-contained districts, who better to draw them? They know best which communities have commonality.

Obviously in smaller counties, the task of drawing 2 or 3 districts would be relatively simple and straightforward. It may be a little more difficult in a municipality like Baltimore or a highly-populated area like Montgomery County, but certainly they could come up with tightly-drawn, contiguous districts.

And if you think a body of around 300 seats is unwieldy, consider the state of New Hampshire has 400 members in their lower house. Certainly there would be changes necessary in the physical plant because the number of Delegates and their attendant staff would be far larger, but on the whole this would restore more power to the people and restrict the edicts from on high in Annapolis.

Tonight I was listening to Jackie Wellfonder launch into a brief discussion of whether the Maryland Republican Party should adopt open primaries, an idea she’s leaning toward adopting – on the other hand, I think it’s nuts. In my estimation, though, these sorts of proposals are nothing more than tinkering around the edges – these ideas I’ve dropped onto the table like a load of bricks represent real change. I think they should be discussed as sincere proposals to truly make this a more Free State by restoring the balance of power between the people, their local government, and the state government in Annapolis.

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