How Nancy Pelosi Can Help Fix the Senate

The House speaker is in a perfect position to push for making the other chamber of Congress more democratic.

The Senate is the biggest obstacle to the proper functioning of American democracy; or government of, by, and for the people. Half the Senate, or fifty senators, represents 16 percent of the population, making it one of the least representative legislative institutions in the free world. Because this skews power towards smaller, more rural states, the result of this imbalance is GOP dominance. Of the fifty senators from the twenty-five states smallest in population, thirty-one are Republicans. And thanks to the filibuster, we’ve made this problem worse. Nine percent of the U.S. population elects forty-two senators, meaning that less than 10 percent of Americans can theoretically stop any piece of legislation from passing. Without change, Mitch McConnell will have us in gridlock forever, whether as majority or minority leader.

It might seem like the Senate’s problems are well beyond the reach of the House of Representatives. The upper chamber, after all, was deliberately set apart from the House by the framers and vested with its own autonomy. But that doesn’t mean a Democratic-led House can’t lead the charge for changing the Senate. So what should Nancy Pelosi do?

In short: challenge the legitimacy of the Senate. Pelosi ought to become the most prominent Democrat, indeed, the most prominent politician, to explicitly declare that the upper chamber is not a well-structured representative institution. She should then lay out a program for making the Senate more fair.

Pelosi can start with advocating for eliminating the filibuster, one of the Senate’s most undemocratic features. There is no constitutional basis for the Senate’s sixty-vote supermajority. The filibuster was invented by accident and is largely regressive—used for decades to combat civil rights legislation and, more recently, to block liberal initiatives like Obama’s cap-and-trade bill. It’s Pelosi, not McConnell, who leads the chamber based on the true republican principle of one person, one vote, and who represents all of us in our capacity as federal citizens.

Now might seem like a peculiar time for the House speaker to take on the filibuster. Democrats, after all, are in the Senate minority. But now may be the only time there is some GOP support for getting rid of this institution. It’s therefore the best chance to make the Senate more democratic in a bipartisan fashion. If the GOP helped eliminate the filibuster, it would be much more difficult for them to argue that Democrats usurp democracy if they use a simple Senate majority to pass progressive legislation. More importantly, getting rid of the filibuster is good for democracy regardless of what party is in power. It’s better to have majority rule than to give the political minority power to veto and stop almost every piece of legislation.

It is difficult, of course, for the House to fight for Senate reform when the lower chamber has its own representation issues. That’s why its time the body sets a good example for the Senate by overhauling itself. HR 1, the anticorruption and voting rights bill that Pelosi’s House introduced, is a good start (if passed, it would eliminate partisan gerrymandering). But she should go further. Under Article I, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution, known as the Elections Clause, the Framers gave Congress power to set the rules for its own elections—and left it free to have single districts, multi-member districts, at-large elections, and proportional representation elections in the House. Such experimentation could make the House even more representative than does just barring gerrymandering. A multi-member House district, for example, would make it far easier for Democratic voters in even heavily Republican districts to elect a representative who speaks for them, and vice-versa.

Electoral reform would also make races more interesting. In larger states, why not try a few at-large elections or proportional representation elections, if only to draw a bigger crowd? In the end, making elections to the House more competitive could be a great way to increase turnout in states, and to therefore make elections to the Senate more competitive. That could, in turn, create a better chance of turnover in the upper chamber.

But really fixing the Senate will require bigger and more direct overhauls. Nancy Pelosi has already set the right tone by endorsing statehood for Washington D.C. She should do the same thing for Puerto Rico. Both regions can achieve statehood through the normal legislative process.

Pelosi, however, should consider proposing a constitutional amendment that would establish a more representative Senate—something closer to one person, one vote. Here’s one fix: Give one extra senate seat to the ten most populous states. Keep the number of senate seats at 100 by subtracting one senate seat from the ten least populous states. Keep the thirty in the middle just as they are. Amending the Constitution might seem like a complete non-starter, but do the math. It takes thirty-seven states to amend the Constitution. The ten biggest states and the thirty in the middle add up to enough votes, with three states to spare.

Yes, it may fail—it is even likely to fail. But even if failure were certain, Pelosi should propose this amendment because it would put in doubt the legitimacy of the way the Senate is constituted. In the European Union, it makes sense for countries to have equal representation, since they existed long before the EU. But in our country, it is the federal government that created most of the states. By my count, the federal government set up thirty-seven of them: all but the thirteen that originally formed our more perfect union. There was no “Original Intent” to have our representation as skewed as it now is with fifty states.

The Senate is an antiquated institution, and taking it on will benefit the young, who will come of age with some consciousness of the profound design flaws in the country. Let’s talk about it in the open. It’s time for a national conversation as to why a defective constitution can warp our national character—and why it leads to polarization and economic inequality. Push back on those crabby Senate rules. Fix the House’s own form of representation to bring out more voters. Advocate for fundamental change. Think big, Speaker Pelosi. Like those thirty-somethings who wrote the Constitution, use your last years in office to help write a better one for us.

Thomas Geoghegan

Thomas Geoghegan is a lawyer and the author, most recently, of Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why Our Country Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement.