How to Fix Congress

Congress is under the control of Republicans who are terribly afraid of primary challenges from right-wing nuts. So Congressional Republicans behave as if they are right-wing nuts themselves, even if they aren’t (some of them aren’t).

In a column devoted to reactions to President Obama’s recent economic speech, Alex Pareene responds to the idea that Obama needs “bold, new proposals” in order to get the Republicans to cooperate:

I dunno, the only bold new proposal I can think of that will meaningfully break down Republican resistance would be to massively expand the size of the House and institute nationwide nonpartisan redistricting, and somehow do this before the 2014 elections, and then get rid of the filibuster? That would be pretty bold.

The House doesn’t represent the will of the people, because small states are over-represented (some congressional districts are nearly twice as large as others) and recent gerrymandering results in more Republicans being elected than Democrats, even though Democrats get more votes. (This rightward tilt is made even stronger by the Republicans’ adherence to the so-called “Hastert Rule”: bills don’t get a vote unless they’re supported by a majority of Republicans, i.e. a majority of the majority).

The Senate, of course, was designed to give extra power to small states and the filibuster gives extra power to the minority. It’s a little-known fact that the original rules of both the House and Senate allowed debate to be ended by a majority vote. In 1806, however, Vice President Aaron Burr convinced senators that they didn’t need such a rule; the rule hadn’t been invoked recently so it was just cluttering up the rule book. That change created the possibility of a filibuster, the requirement that a super-majority be required to end debate. The first filibuster occurred 31 years later. Now ordinary business often requires the approval of 60 Senators. So much for majority rule.

Unfortunately, the likelihood that Mr. Parene’s “bold, new ideas” will soon be adopted is approximately zero. It’s true that the Senate might change its rules; that could happen now if some Democratic senators weren’t afraid of the consequences. But it’s highly unlikely that the House will be expanded (although someone is arguing for that to happen: The most we can hope for is that Congressional districts will one day be drawn with little or no political influence — or that whoever carries out the next round of gerrymandering does a better job.

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