Democrats and Republicans

Today, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, gave the longest speech in the history of the House, which goes back to 1789. After it was discovered that the House rules allow party leaders to speak as long as they want, Pelosi stood and spoke for a little over eight hours.

The longest speech in the history of the U.S. Senate lasted 24 hours. It was given in 1957 by a racist Southerner in opposition to that year’s Civil Rights Act. At the time, he was a Democrat (because most Southerners were), but he became a Republican after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights act (as most Southerners did). He remained a Republican for the next thirty-nine years.

That basically sums up our two political parties. A woman wants people illegally brought here as children to be protected against deportation and to have a chance to become American citizens. A man wanted to stop everyone from having equal rights, especially black people.

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.

Democracy by the Numbers

For several years, I’ve occasionally driven back and forth between Vermont and upstate New York. The difference between the two states is always noticeable.

On the Vermont side of the border, everything seems neat and tidy and pleasant. There are billboards that say even the gas stations are nice in Vermont (I don’t remember seeing vases of plastic flowers in gas station restrooms in other states.)

The New York side of the border, however, which is equally rural, always looks shabby and rundown. The atmosphere in towns like Whitehall and Fort Ann is depressing. Every time I drive through there I wonder what the people do for a living.

So it was good to see confirmation of my assessment, and a possible explanation, in the New York Times: 

“In the four years after the financial crisis struck, a great wave of federal stimulus money washed over Rutland County (Vermont). It helped pay for bridges, roads, preschool programs, a community health center, buses and fire trucks, water mains and tanks… Just down Route 4, at the New York border, the landscape abruptly turns from spiffy to scruffy. Washington County, N.Y., which is home to about 60,000 people — just as Rutland is — saw only a quarter as much money.”

The Times suggests that the key difference between these adjoining regions is that Vermont, as a small state, has the same number of U.S. senators as New York, a very large state:

“Vermont’s 625,000 residents have two United States senators, and so do New York’s 19 million. That means that a Vermonter has 30 times the voting power in the Senate of a New Yorker just over the state line — the biggest inequality between two adjacent states.”

There are surely other reasons for the obvious discrepancy between Vermont and upstate New York, but it’s very likely that different levels of political representation are an important factor. States like Vermont and Wyoming (population 580,000) have the same number of senators as New York and California (population 38 million). That affects where the money goes.

Small states are even over-represented in the House. The representative from Wyoming has 580,000 constituents. The average representative from California has 720,000. Throw in the effect of gerrymandering in the House, which recently helped Republicans win 53% of the seats while receiving 48% of the popular vote, and it shouldn’t be surprising that Congress doesn’t reflect the will of the people.