Friday, October 09, 2020

Does America really need a House of Representatives AND a Senate

While we Canadians look on in horror and bemusement as the US election lurches from one crisis to another, I have been trying to understand a little more about the American political system.

I know that there is the House of Representatives and the Senate, and, unlike the Canadian Senate, both of these branches of government are composed of elected members. I know that there are 100 Senators (2 for each state) and 435 Representatives (loosely based on the populations of the various states). And I know that Representatives serve for just two years, while Senators serve for 6 years, with one-third of them re-elected every two years. 

The Senate was originally envisaged by the Founding Fathers as a chamber of "sober second thought", similar to that of Canada or the UK, relatively limited in power, but designed to reign in some of the rashness and wildness that was expected to be inflicted by the uneducated mob of people and their representatives. But that's not really how things turned out, and it's certainly not how things are now.

A bit more research informs me of some other differences. For example, Senators need to be ar least 30 years old and have been a US citizen for at least 9 years; Representatives need to be at least 25 years old and have been a citizen for at least 7 years (a pretty random distinction).

And the Senate and House of Representatives have different responsibilities and possibilities as regards what they can bring about and vote on. For example, as we have seen, the House can call for a president to be impeached, but the Senate is repsonsible for actually legislating it. Why? Who knows? Some Founding Father decided to make it so. Senate members are not allow to bring forward bills to raise revenue (e.g. tax bills), but the Senate is allowed to amend such bills. The Senate has veto power over treaties and executive appointments; the House does not. It all seems remarkably random. 

So, is there actually any point in having the two separate chambers? Not that I can see. The House is clearly more representative of the population (despite some horrible gerrymandering in many states). The Senate, in which tiny states like Rhode Island or Wyoming have as much clout as huge ones like California or New York, is clearly not representative. The Senate is less racially representative too, with the small, rural, mainly white, God-belt states being hugely over-represented. Washington DC and Puerto Rico, technically not being states, have no influence in the Senate at all.

So, why not just get rid of it? Well, there is definitely a movement to do just that, but tinkering with anything the Founding Fathers put in place, however dumb, is a tough ask, and the legalities are a nightmare. Basically, it is all but impossible.

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