Trump’s acquittal proved it — if we want real democracy, we need to get rid of the Senate

Do the math and you see why the legislative body has become a tyranny of the minority

Carl Gibson
New York
Monday 15 February 2021 19:55
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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., arrives as the Senate convenes in a rare weekend session for final arguments in the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., arrives as the Senate convenes in a rare weekend session for final arguments in the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump

The recent vote to acquit Donald Trump in his second impeachment trial is an excellent reason to abolish the antiquated legislative body. Simply put, the Senate has outlived any usefulness it once had, and we’re long overdue a change if we want proper democracy.

To be clear, the acquittal of Trump itself wasn’t surprising, given that numerous Senate Republicansvoted to preemptively end the trial before House impeachment managers even got a chance to present their case. But what is surprising is that the vote to convict Trump was the most bipartisan conviction vote of any president in any impeachment trial in history, with seven Republicans joining all 50 Democrats.

When doing the math, the 57 votes in favor of conviction represent the populations of 33 states, amounting to approximately 220 million Americans, according to the most recent census data. That’s more than half the Senate, nearly two-thirds of states, and more than two-thirds of America’s total population of 328.2 million people. If conviction were up to a simple majority vote, it wouldn’t have been remotely close.

However, due to the arcane rules of impeachment trials, 43 Republican Senators representing just 33 percent of the population in 17 states were able to exercise a tyranny of the minority. Even though Trump instigated a violent mob that smashed the windows of the federal legislative building, assaulted 140 police officers, and roamed the hallways looking for lawmakers to hang from the gallows they built outside of the Capitol, 43 Senators representing sparsely populated states like Idaho, North and South Dakota, and Wyoming successfully absolved the president of accountability. Trump felt the acquittal vindicated him, and indicated in a public statement that he and his movement aren’t going anywhere

Thanks to the Senate, a fascist coup attempt like January 6 will almost certainly happen again, and the next one may be even worse.

The framers established the Senate to give states equal representation in Congress, with the pool of eligible Senators being limited to people already elected to state legislatures. However, the ratification of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution established the election of Senators by the voting public, essentially making the Senate a smaller, more powerful, less democratic version of the House of Representatives. Now, to be a US Senator, all that is required is that a person be at least 30 years of age, reside in the state they seek to represent, and have at least nine years of citizenship.

Unlike the House, the Senate is built to hamstring and slow down the legislative process, primarily through an obscure tool known as the filibuster. If a lone Senator wants to stall a vote on a bill, all they need to do is invoke “cloture,” which sets up a procedural hurdle that requires three-fifths of the Senate (60 votes) to overcome. When comparing the 60-vote cloture threshold to the 57 votes to convict Trump, it could be argued that the filibuster effectively kills bipartisanship by rendering efforts to come together to pass legislation nearly impossible.

The archaic design of the Senate is profoundly undemocratic and disenfranchises Americans living in populous states. California, for example, has just two Senators representing itsapproximately 40 million residents. Meanwhile, the combined populations of the 22 smallest US states still fall short of California’s population, yet their 44 Senators have much more sway over legislation. Even Los Angeles County has a population of approximately 10 million people. California’s largest county is more populous than the 10 least populated states combined (Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Delaware, Rhode Island, Montana, Maine, and New Hampshire), yet those states have 20 Senators between them.

Abolishing the Senate and moving to a unicameral legislature wouldn’t be an unprecedented experiment. In fact, there are plenty of examples the US could look to. All Canadian provinces have unicameral legislatures, and even the state of Nebraska has had a unicameral legislature since 1937. Senator George Norris (R-Nebraska) led the movement to transform his state’s legislative body into one chamber, saying, “There is no sense of reason in having the same thing done twice, especially if it is to be done by two bodies of men elected in the same way and having the same jurisdiction.”

The US is simultaneously facing a once-in-a-century pandemic; levels of unemployment and desperation not seen since the Great Depression; political violence raging more than any period since the Civil War; and an unprecedented climate catastrophe that’s currently resulting infreezing temperatures and heavy snow in a Texas border town that recorded 112F temperatures in July. America has way too much to do to be constrained by a centuries-old undemocratic legislative body. 

If we want to survive the 21st century, the Senate has to die.

Carl Gibson is a freelance journalist whose work has been published in CNN, The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Barron’s, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter@crgibs

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