Most bills introduced in Congress never make it out of committee, let alone receive a vote on the House or Senate floor. But even when a member of Congress knows their bill is doomed, they can still have a good reason for introducing it. For one thing, it can identify a problem and let people know how to fix it.
Earlier this week, Rep. Sean Casten, a Democrat who represents the 6th district of Illinois southwest of Chicago, submitted two bills as part of what he called “A Common Sense Vision for American Democracy”. As part of the same package, he proposed a resolution suggesting an amendment to the Constitution.
He gave a very good speech explaining why he did this. He argued that the principal reason Congress rarely accomplishes anything important, even when it’s something favored by most voters, is that minority rule is built into our system of government. It’s a rather obvious point, but worth repeating: if majority rule was a bigger feature of our government, it would be easier for our government to do things the majority of us want our government to do.
I recommend reading or watching Rep. Casten’s whole speech (although he attributes a point of view to his Republican colleagues that they don’t share). Here’s some of it:
People say: Why is it that people in this institution are failing to do things that are overwhelmingly popular?
When we see those little polls that say Congress has a 20 percent approval rating, that should be a red light that we got to fix things…. If we are going to do that, we have to first acknowledge some unpleasant, if self-evident, truths.
First of all, … our Founders actually weren’t perfect. They weren’t Moses. They weren’t Jesus. They were fallible people just like us….
The second thing we got to acknowledge is that our Founders didn’t actually think the Constitution was perfect….
The third thing, and this is the one that I think is most important for us here today, is that our Founders did not understand democracy nearly as well as we do…. They were an amazing group of people. They did an amazing thing, but we have 233 years of wisdom that they did not have….
What’s clear, the answer to that question, ‘‘why is it that we can’t do things that the majority of the American people want?’’ is in large part because while our Founders paid lip service to democracy … they didn’t trust that people in a fully democratic society could elect a President, so they created the Electoral College. They created the Senate expressly to frustrate the will of the majority….
When it was founded, the biggest state had 10 times the population of the smallest state. Today, it is up to almost 70. So, we have massively disenfranchised huge numbers of … people because of a structure that was designed to disenfranchise large, but not as big, numbers of people.
We kick a bill out of here, you can get 50 votes in the Senate with people representing 17 percent of the United States population.
When our voters ask us why we can’t get things done that are supported by the will of the majority, it is built into our system.
And then finally, our Founders created the Supreme Court with largely no checks and balances — lifetime appointments, no ethics obligations….
Remember, Marbury v. Madison that significantly expanded the power of the Court relative to the legislative branch came after the Constitution was signed. This is a different structure than what they contemplated, and effectively gave the Supreme Court not the ability to write laws but darn close to it, because you get one Supreme Court Justice that flips the majority, and all of a sudden, you can say that our work here, all the good work we put in [in Congress], is unconstitutional and overturned …That is not majoritarian….
In a healthy democracy, we should all be competing for that mythical center of the electorate. We shouldn’t be sitting there and saying: I have a 20-year plan to stack the Court with Justices who will agree with me to overturn the will of the American people.
We shouldn’t be sitting there saying: Well, I can control the Senate if I just find a couple of senate seats in a couple of low-population states with cheap TV markets….
We will be healthier, both of our parties, if we commit ourselves to the idea, as Jefferson said, that if we are not representing the will of the majority, because no form of government ever consistently does, let’s fix it so that we do, which brings me to the three bills we introduced today.
The first bill is a constitutional amendment to add 12 national at-large Senators….Imagine what would happen if 10 percent of the Senate had an interest in representing the will of the American people….It would make it that much harder for them to filibuster a good bill that comes out of here because why would you filibuster something that is supported by the majority of the American people?
It would also, by adding 12 senators, add 12 more electors [to the Electoral College] who represented the popular vote. That would reduce the number of scenarios where we could have the popular vote winner lose an election to the electoral vote winner. That is the first bill.
The second one is to expand this House, and in the next Census, 2030, say let’s go out and look at the smallest State in the Union and say the size of that State is going to set the size of a congressional district, because if we are the House of Representatives, we should make sure that all of us represent as close as we can the same number of people.
The House hasn’t grown since 1911. The population of the United States has grown three and a half times since 1911…. So let’s expand the House and make us more representative. If we did that based on the last Census, that would add something like 130 seats to this House [e.g. California would have 67 representatives instead of 52; Florida would have 37 instead of 28].
Again, that would add more votes to the Electoral College. It would make [presidential elections] more representative.
And then the third bill … is to restore the Supreme Court to their Article III responsibilities….Article III of the Constitution lays out the scope of the Supreme Court. It says that they are responsible for matters of admiralty law, maritime law, matters relating to ambassadors, disputes between the States, and appellate jurisdictions the Congress may see fit to provide from time to time.
If we have a Court that is consistently not fulfilling the will of the American people, if we have a Court that is consistently encroaching on our power here in this Chamber, overturning our judgments and what we do, it is in our power to … reduce their appellate jurisdiction…. If the courts are going to say that a law we passed is unconstitutional, we will select from a pool of circuit court judges, appellate court judges, at random, and it will take at least 70 percent of them to overturn a bill…It takes two-thirds for us to overturn a veto, right? Let’s hold them to the same standard….
Also, it would eliminate the shadow docket. Why do we allow ourselves to live in a world where the Supreme Court can just decide to rule on something and not even explain it? Let’s get rid of the shadow docket.
I am not perfect. You aren’t perfect, Mr. Speaker. None of us in this room are perfect. Our Founders weren’t perfect, but we are perfectible, and we have a job that affords us the opportunity and the responsibility to make our government a little bit better, a little bit more responsive, a little bit more democratic.
It may take a long time to do the kind of things Rep. Casten (and others) want to do. It may never happen. But more of us should understand why the president, Congress and the Supreme Court aren’t as representative as they should be. Maybe more of us will vote for politicians who want more majority rule. Maybe one day somebody we vote for will do something about it.
Next time, however, I’ll offer a corrective to Rep. Casten’s speech. He may have been giving his Republican colleagues the benefit of the doubt, but he claimed they believe in something they really don’t.