The Great Compromise

August 7th, 2009

Joel Achenbach in Senators From Nowhere in The Washington Post:

The six senators pushing for a compromise deal on health care — and meeting [on August 6] with President Obama — apparently aren’t going to be spending a lot of time meeting constituents in “town hall” gatherings back home. This is because they come from states without any actual towns.

Max Baucus is the leader of the group (and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee). He’s from Montana, where the people are outnumbered by bears.

There’s Chuck Grassley from Iowa (where just last year he cut the ribbon on the state’s first escalator), and Mike Enzi, from Wyoming, which has a smaller population than the District of Columbia. There’s Olympia Snowe from Maine, which, back in my day, was a part of Massachusetts, and really should have stayed that way. There’s Jeff Bingaman from New Mexico, almost every square inch of which is covered by uninhabited desert, forests, craggy mountains or salt flats. And finally there’s Kent Conrad, from North Dakota, which is so forlorn it makes South Dakota seem like Southern California.

Achenbach continued:

A number of bloggers have noted this rather undemocratic situation, including Matt Yglesias, who reports that the six states represented by the senators have, collectively, one-fifth the population of California:

“The largest metropolitan area contained in whole or in part within any of those six states is the Albuquerque MSA, population 846,000, the 59th largest in the United States–smaller than New Haven or Fresno or Richmond.”

Ah, the genius of the Founders.

[Note that the Gang of Six does well when it comes to raising campaign donations from corporate interests that would be affected by the legislation.]

Well, folks, this is what the Great Compromise was about.  The Constitutional Convention had a problem because the larger, more-populous states wanted proportional representation in the federal legislature, giving them the greater influence they felt entitled to.  The smaller and less-populous states, feeling that their statehood should give them a voice equal to that of any other state, were opposed. 

The compromise created a Senate of two representatives of each state (originally to be chosen by the state legislatures) and a House of Representatives with not more than one member for each 30,000 people, except that no state was to have less than one representative.  (The infamous three-fifths rule is buried in there, too.)  The Great Compromise was put to a vote on July 16, 1787 and was narrowly adopted by five states in favor and four against.  The four against were the large states, of course.  (See Article I, U.S. Constitution.)

So what we have today is a democratic and representative House that can pass any bills it wants, often reflecting the popular passions of the day.  The Senate, with it’s non-representative, longer-tenured membership, sits there as a roadblock and a filter, slowing things down and forcing the House to reconcile its bills with versions crafted in the Senate.  

Does this odd arrangement make things better?  Are we more protected against the momentary passions of the mob?  Maybe, maybe not.  All things considered, I’d rather have this than a unicameral legislature with just the current House or a bicameral legislature with both houses proportionally elected.  I’m sure Alexander Hamilton would agree; he and some of the other Founders were suspicious of an overly-democratic federal government that could inflict bad laws on the states.

I’m sure ol’ Alex is spinning in his grave these days.


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7 Responses to “The Great Compromise”



  1. Brian |

    It would seem that my thoughts on the 17th amendment have a wider audience than I believed.


  2. Tom |

    Repealing the 17th might be a good idea, I suppose. It would put us back to the point where senators are chosen by state legislatures, which might require elections or other mechanisms for guiding their choices. In any case, it wouldn’t make any difference on this problem (if it really is a problem) of Montana having the same number of senators as California.


  3. Brian |

    Well, it isn’t really a problem. It is only a problem if you understand this as a democracy. This is a republic, and the point of the senate was to give the states an equal voice in the operation of the federal government.

    Throughout the history of the world, a “state” was considered a sovereign entity, as in “the city state of Athens” or “the city state of Sparta”, etc. The several STATES (not provinces) of the united states in America (lower case used here after the same fashion as the founders frequently used it) are sovereign in all matters except those things specifically enumerated within the constitution.

    Ask yourself why a constitutional republic was established in the first place. Reread the preamble and attempt to understand it in the language of 1789, not 2009. It helps to read books like Ben Franklin’s autobiography. Their style of writing back then was subtle, oblique. The writing style of today is blunt.

    The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people

    The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

    There are no clearer treatises anywhere that reflect the idea that the federal government is limited in scope, and that the real “principalities” are the several states. The states, through the ratification of the constitution, gave themselves a large voice in the operation of the federal government through the senate.


  4. Tom |

    The most accurate way to describe the U.S. form of government is to say it’s a federal republic that operates on democratic principles. That’s very broad, and it doesn’t explain very much. What means even less, except for the humor, is the good ‘ol boy sitting in the diner wearing his John Deere cap, smacking his hand on the table and declaring loudly, “This here’s a republic, and don’t y’all fergit it!” Every time I hear or read this declaration, I have no idea what he’s trying to say. I’m sure he doesn’t, either.

    In the broadest terms, whether U.S. states are sovereign or not depends on what you think the word means. In particular, it depends on whether you think sovereignty is divisible. Except for a quick blink of time during the transition, states went from being non-sovereign colonies to members of a federal union in which, at the very least, they surrendered chunks of sovereignty. That assumes one accepts that sovereignty can be divided in a some sort of give-a-little, keep-a-little manner.

    For example, the U.S. is a member of the UN and has agreed to abide by certain treaties and protocols that are sometimes called “international law.” That could be considered a voluntary surrender of sovereignty. However, the U.S. retains the practical power to ignore these obligations and, like other nation-states, often does. But states of the U.S. don’t have that power; when the federal government speaks, the states comply. That was most vividly illustrated a while back when some of the states tried to secede and they were forcibly prevented from doing so. The case could be made that they had to right to secede under the Constitution, but as a practical matter they were prevented from doing it. That fact should settle the question of state sovereignty.

    We can quote the Ninth and Tenth Amendments all day long, but it doesn’t matter. The Constitution ultimately means what the federal government thinks it means. Ironically, the power of the Supreme Court to decide whether laws are constitutional, and therefore which laws states must abide by, is not mentioned in the Constitution (although some have argued that it might have been understood). So, in 1803 the Supreme Court quickly established (Marbury v. Madison) that it alone has the ultimate power to say what the Constitution means. What room does that leave for any reasonable concept of state sovereignty?

    Regardless of what any of us may wish were true, our system of government is what it is, and there’s no going back.

    But back to the point: Even if the manner of selecting senators changed, that wouldn’t change the fact the the Senate is not proportionally representative while the House is. And that arrangement isn’t what makes our form of government a republic.


  5. Brian |

    “The Constitution ultimately means what the federal government thinks it means.”

    That is putting the cart before the horse. While I agree that that is what has become of our government, that is not the way it should be, nor was it the way it was created. Down that road lies tyranny.

    Will we reach an ultimate inversion where we must get permission to do anything at all?

    Ultimately, if that is true, then let us quit pretending that we have a constitution or that it means anything at all.


  6. Tom |

    Brian, I don’t think tyranny is in our future. The Constitution has certainly been folded and spindled, but it hasn’t been mutilated. The great strength of that old document is that it has been able to constantly adapt to changing times.

    Granted, a lot of what was clearly intended is not being observed. Maybe the best examples are the Ninth and Tenth Amendments, the commerce clause, the general welfare clause, and even the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth.

    But it still works, and despite the whines of those who can find nothing good to say about America, it provides the basis for the best government I’ve seen or know about.

    The UK government system is also very good, and they do it without a written constitution at all. They base their system of government on common law, precedent, tradition, historical documents, and the instincts of their people.


  7. Brian |

    I’d say that the fourth amendment is on its way out, thanks to the Patriot Act. The IRS and tax courts act largely as if there is no such thing as a 4th amendment as well, and have been doing so for decades.

    The 5th is abused when it is politically suitable to do so. Think about the officers involved in the Rodney King affair. They were acquitted by state district court, then tried and convicted on 14th amendment grounds by federal district court. The double jeopardy clause of the 5th amendment is unambiguous. The IRS and tax courts regularly urinate on this one as well.

    I do not recall the young man’s name now, but the young muslim of american citizenship (I think he was arrested in Detroit about 5 or 6 years ago) that was held indefinitely sans indictment or trial. I think he was probably guilty of everything that was said of him, but that doesn’t change the meaning or intent of the 6th amendment or the obligations of the federal government. We are now doing exactly one of the things that the crown did in the 18th century which prompted a revolution here.

    The 7th amendment has been made obsolete by fiat(thanks largely to the unconstitutional actions of FDR and Nixon). While $20 in gold is what it is, an equivalent amount of greenbacks today is just a shade over $500.


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