Now might be a good time for Free Constituencies reform in the US Senate

Before you get your undergarments in a bunch, let me reassure you that I’m not taking a stand against this party or that, or even against politicians in general. But, I am about to take a stand against partisanship, political archaism, and unrepresentative dynamics in supposedly democratic bodies.

The Senate has pulled the “nuclear option,” dropping the 60-vote hurdle for confirming nominations, and this has many people fearing that the Senate’s barriers to passing legislation could be next on the chopping block.

The perceived crisis was well-described in the New York Times:

But as both parties have moved to do what was once unthinkable — eliminating the filibuster for judicial and cabinet nominees, known as the nuclear option — senators are now forced to consider if the final step could be in the offing, one that would fundamentally alter the character of the Senate and make it indistinguishable from the House in a crucial way.

“Benjamin Franklin is somewhere turning over in his grave,” said Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, who has been a crucial player in the efforts to preserve the filibuster. “Why have a bicameral system?”

That is actually a damned good question. Why have two houses in Congress if the Senate and House do things the same way?

Well, there’s another way the Senate differs from the House “in a crucial way.” The Senate is notoriously far less democratic than the House, with the 39 million Californians having the same representation in the Senate as roughly half a million Wyomingites, because each state gets two Senators regardless of size or population.

The problem forcing the nuclear option in the Senate is partisan dualism, an intractable fight between what too many Americans see as a lesser-of-two-evils. The minority party has significant power to block the majority party from accomplishing anything, which is why often nothing gets done. We see this when the Republicans are the majority and we see this when the Democrats are the majority. The only things that get passed are things both parties want, and if the only things getting done are things the two parties don’t disagree about, there’s really no point in having elections in the first place.

But, there is a way to diffuse the gridlock and corruption of two-party rule. Although it would take a considerable amount of political will and a constitutional Amendment.

Free Constituencies

The Senate should be nationalized, its seats freed from the states and elected by the entire country through a process known to political science as proportional representation. I prefer to call it Free Constituencies. The basic idea is that a slate of politicians run for X number of available seats and the X number of candidates who get the most votes throughout the country get those seats. This means that independent and third-party candidates with solid issues stand a chance to slip through the Scylla and Charybdis of two-party rule and their constituents can actually have their voices heard.

Why do I call this method Free Constituencies? Rather than being corralled into geographic blocs, voters can decide for themselves what issues define them. If the Senate were nationalized, elected nationwide by proportional representation, voters would be free to choose their own constituencies rather than being forced into territorial constituencies many of which were defined centuries before they were even born.

The Senate’s make-up could be set permanently at 100 seats, and divided into three groups, each of which are up for election every three years for six-year terms. Thirty-three seats, then thirty-three seats, then thirty-four seats.

As an alternative, we could split the Senate up into four 25-seat groups and set up the elections every two years, and in odd-numbered years so they never align with the presidential race. I actually like this plan for how it lets Americans focus on fewer contests at a time, and respond within a year to how we feel about a new president’s performance.

Win-Win: The Bonus Advantages

This is a clear win for voters in high-population states, whose representation in the Senate is obviously unfair and undemocratic. They can shrug off the confines of two-party rule and define their own, issues-based constituencies.

Voters in low-population states, who now enjoy democratically inexcusable over-representation in the Senate, might feel nervous about giving up this advantage no matter how unfair it is, or feel they should resist this measure as loyal Wyomingites, Rhode Islanders, or Delawareans. But, they should look beyond their geographic corrals and realize that, as individuals, they likely share interests and values with voters in other states, interests that aren’t fully and diligently represented by either the Democrats or Republicans who control their home states.

Why keep accepting a lesser-of-two-evils choice forced on you by the claustrophobic two-party machine in your state when you could reach across state borders to issue-driven politicians whose core issue is your core issue?

This plan would also eliminate the partisan bickering over statehood fights, because one of the key motivators in these fights is to keep one or the other party from securing a sure pair of Senate seats based on which of the two parties has greater support in the territory in question. In a Free Constituencies Senate, there would be no secure seats based on geography, so statehood debates would suddenly have much less at stake. The United States could suddenly find itself enjoying a renewed political energy, as the barriers to feeling fully represented fall between Congress and the Americans living in the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the various Pacific territories like Guam and Sámoa.

And, who knows? Friendly regions currently outside the United States might want to join the team. The energy our country knew in our adolescence, when new territories were organizing to petition for inclusion in the Union, could be ours again like a magical youth drug.

Expansion without imperialism. Yes, a solution to that timeless paradox.

If you’re surprised by the opportunities here, you should share this idea as broadly as you can. Make sure that the two-party machine doesn’t rule your future. There’s a way out of this mess, without bending to either partisan agenda. A way that opens doors for people, Americans and not-yet-Americans. A real way forward.

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