Rebalancing the Senate

While Democrats are extremely mindful that President Donald Trump defied all odds and won the presidency in 2016, they are increasingly hopeful that, with his disapproval ratings outweighing his approval ratings – even with such a strong economy – that winning back the presidency in 2020 is eminently doable. However, in order to reverse a number of Trump’s initiatives and make progress on a wide range of progressive agenda items from health care to the environment, it is clear that it is not enough to win back the presidency – Democrats need to control Congress as well. Assuming that if a Democrat is elected president, their party will retain their House majority, so winning the Senate becomes key to overturning Trump-era initiatives. But is that possible?

Let’s do the math. There are 34 Senate seats up for election in 2020, 12 of which are currently held by Democrats and 22 by Republicans. Pundits have argued that with Republicans having to defend nearly two thirds of the seats up for re-election in 2020, Republicans are much more vulnerable than the Democrats, if a Democrat wins at the top of the ticket. In reality, however, it appears that by various estimates 16 of those 22 Republican seats are safe with only six of those seats looking like they’re in play. In addition, the seat won in a special-election victory by Sen. Doug Jones (D) in Alabama is up as well, and that one will be a very hard seat for the Democrats to hold.

So what does that mean for Democrats to take back the Senate? If they lose Alabama — even assuming the Democrats win the White House (in which case they only need 50 seats for a majority), they must win four of the six in-play seats. Of those six, four are in states won by Trump in 2016, increasing the challenge for Democrats. However, on the optimistic side for Democrats, four of those six states where Republicans may be vulnerable have a Democrat as their other senator. Even with this political headwind, it doesn’t paint the full picture. The electoral challenge facing Democrats is one even more deeply rooted in the current structural composition of the Senate.

The Founding Fathers devised the Senate to ensure each state had equal representation and the House had the number of elected officials proportionate to population. However, a massive population imbalance across the country has developed over time. When the country was established, the difference between the populations of the five biggest northern states to the five smallest southern states was 766,381 people (not including slaves at the time) with a 2-to-1 ratio between the two populations.

Today, the difference between the population of the 10 largest blue states and the 10 smallest red states is about 91 million, with a ratio of about 24 to 1. That means that 20 red states have 40 Senate votes, which is essentially sufficient to block most legislation. The Republican vote in 2016 in those 20 states, even with the heavier turnout of a presidential election year, amounted to only about 5 percent of the U.S. population. So one way to look at the kind of stranglehold red America has on the U.S. Senate is through this prism: That 5 percent of the U.S. population in red, heavily rural states, effectively has solid control over 40 percent of the Senate. This gives this small percentage of the U.S. population a veto on what comes out of Congress, since passing something through the Senate requires 60 votes to file cloture and head off a filibuster of any legislation. The Senate representation of the smallest red states has grown totally out of whack with anything the founders could have imagined.

However, there is a remedy here, one which does not involve a constitutional amendment or change the original intent in how the chamber was structured. It could be accomplished quite rapidly if the Democrats do regain control of the executive and legislative branches in 2020. There are about 4 million U.S. citizens living in Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, currently being deprived of voting representation in Congress. To admit a state to the union, it only requires a majority vote of Congress, and by tradition, a plebescite where a majority of the territory’s citizens vote in favor of admission – which both D.C. and Puerto Rico have done several times. Such a reform would not only help deal with overcoming a lack of minority black and Latino representation in Congress, but also would help to overcome the voter repression of minority interests in a number of states. It would also immediately enable a rebalancing of the Senate by adding four likely Democratic senators and go a long way towards releasing the grip a tiny percentage of voters in red states has on all actions by Congress. These structural political reasons for rebalancing the Senate are in addition to the many humanitarian reasons for statehood in light of the inadequate federal response to Hurricane Maria.

The rebalancing of the Senate, which has been tilted way out of step with the majority of Americans, is the critical foundation upon which all other corrective action on individual Trump policies can be built. These actions would go a long way in restoring the federal government to the kind of centrist balance our democracy should have to reflect the wide diversity of the U.S. population and should be the immediate work the Democrats undertake if they accomplish a two-branch sweep. In a nutshell: In 2020, put the right two at the top of the ticket, take two houses of Congress and two branches of government and admit two new states. So let’s focus on the Senate, too.


Tom Rogers is the founder of CNBC, a CNBC contributor, executive chairman of WinView, and the former CEO of TiVo and former senior counsel to a congressional committee.

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