Friday, December 07, 2012

Changing the Senate AND Changing the Veep

I mentioned earlier I had some ideas about fixing the Senate, especially when we consider how undemocratic that body of legislature is today.  What had been a balancing force between states and regional politics has altered into a logjam of political ideology, because the number of states have grown and the population difference between large states and small now unwieldy.

At the same time, I've had some issues regarding the Vice President, that it is for all intents an archaic office with only three functions: being the tie-breaking vote for the Senate (as President of the Senate), service as replacement/back-up to the sitting President, and of course protecting the space-time continuum.

So, like all mad scientists, I figure why not solve both problems with one solution?  (either that or create a giant monster, but for that I need a government grant)

First off, let's look at the office of the Veep: why does it exist, really?  Back in the beginning of the Constitution's formation, the Vice President was the second-place runner-up for the Presidency.  The Roman concept of co-consulships had appealed to the Founders, but they figured a true executive had to be in one person, so to the winner..  The consolation prize for getting second place was getting the President of the Senate, a body that was designed for even-number membership no matter what, meaning the need for a tie-breaker vote.  The Vice-Presidency was there to establish a chain of succession in case of emergency (which would get tested by 1841), and to grant the Senate body a slightly better rank of value over the House (and the Speaker of that body).

However, party formation f-cked that idea up by 1800.  The Founders didn't count on party factions trying to run on two-person tickets to secure both the Presidency and Vice-Presidency, creating a major constitutional crisis that had to be fixed with the Twelfth Amendment.  Now, the runner-up didn't get the Senate tie-breaker seat: the President got a loadstone around his neck in the form of a Veep who had no constitutional office within his own administration while the Senate got someone who answered more to the White House than the Capitol.

The thing is, a Vice President isn't really needed.  In terms of creating a succession chain, the Twenty-Fifth Amendment already establishes the means of determining who can replace the President if death, illness, impeachment and/or criminal prosecution happens.  And it can be tweaked as needed (for example, there is an ongoing push to revamp the succession among Cabinet members to have more national-security type offices - such as the newest one Homeland Security - get priority over other Secretaries such as Education or Housing/Urban Development).  What IS needed even if a VP is no longer part of the Executive branch is a tie-breaking vote for the Senate.

What's also needed for the Senate is a means to counter the unbalanced power that the smaller populated states - such as Wyoming or Montana or Delaware - have over the larger populated states - California and Texas and New York et al.  A handful of senators from enough small states can thwart the political will of senators from larger ones: in essence, a minority of the population can completely stymie the interests of the vast majority.  While the rights of the political minorities ought to be protected, that shouldn't come at the expense of the majority... EVERY... FREAKING... TIME.

More senators elected from the larger states might help counter that: it's been suggested before, so hello Professor Larry Sabato.  Another suggestion was to make ex-Presidents into permanent standing senators representing the whole nation: while it gives former Prezes something to do, it's not exactly a democratic answer (and having a Senator Dubya or Senator Jimmy Carter doesn't look too helpful, ya)... but the idea of nationally elected senators is more promising.

Nationally-elected senators would have the appeal and support of the nation's majority of voters (meaning those residing or sharing in the values of the larger states), providing a counterbalance to those senators from smaller (or more partisan-leaning) states.  Creating these new offices would also provide a start-point for those politicians tempted to run for higher national office (ahem, President) who may not be able to appeal at their residential state's level but at the national level (for example, a moderate Republican residing in Alabama able to run, or a centrist Democrat from Vermont).

Ergo, we can do this:
  • Drop the Vice President office.  Presidential campaigns are now free to pursue a life of political fulfillment without juggling the demands of party factions.
  • Create electable offices for the U.S. Senate for nationwide representation.  Make it an odd-then-even number of open offices to be filled for each of the Senate election cycles: three open seats for the first cycle, two (or four) open seats for the second, and then two (or four) open seats for the third.  You end up with seven (or eleven) National Senators.
  • Have it so that the incoming Senate body votes between the incoming National Senators (who will not vote, as they are the candidates) for the office of Senate President (what the VP is supposed to be).  This is where the odd total number works: the appointed Senate President does not sit on committees but presides over the body, enforces decorum, and casts any tie-breaking votes as needed.  This might also provide wacky hijinks if say the Senate body is mostly one party but the national senators from another: trying to see who gets picked as Senate leader would be fuuuuunnnny (or of course create another constitutional crisis, but then again every action has its own unplanned consequence).
  • Every new incoming Senate gets to vote on the Senate President.  It's possible for that person to just serve the two years: it all depends on that person's performance and/or the makeup of the new Senate.
  • Insert the Senate President into the chain of succession as part of the Twenty-fifth.  Placed below the President and above the Speaker of the House, where the VP currently has the spot.  This means whoever gets chosen by the Senate to serve as Senate President has to fulfill the office requirements (over 35, resident of the nation 14+ years, must be a natural-born citizen).
  • The remaining nationally elected Senators get to sit on committees and vote as regular members of the Senate.

Viola!  The National Senators replace the office of Vice President, and nothing gets lost.  The President no longer has to worry about a Vice President that could serve as a loose cannon or represent an inter-factional force against her (or his) own interests.  The Senate gets to choose their own Senate President who got elected on his/her own terms.  And the interests of the nation's majority has a better chance of getting heard and resolved.

Add this to the other proposal of increasing the number of senators elected from the ten or fifteen most-populated states (Sabato argues for 2 additional, but I feel 1 addition fits within the election cycle), and we reduce the damage that can be done by a small-population Senator even more.

This is a do-able amendment idea that can fix a lot of what's wrong with the U.S. Senate: the other fix - getting rid of Secrets Holds and weakening if not eliminating the filibuster altogether - has to be done by the Senators themselves.

To quote the wise man: What do you think, sirs?

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