“How could the Senate vote down something supported by 90% of the public?” This is a question asked across Facebook this morning, urged on by President Obama’s statement to similar effect.
How? It’s actually easy, and happens more often than we realize, on much more mundane and even less controversial measures. It’s because the senate is broken; I don’t think the gun lobby is uniquely to blame. All lobbies exploit the senate to protect their sectarian interests. The real problem is that we have allowed the senate to work like this.54 senators voted in favor of an amendment to require additional gun sales to be subject to background checks (both on the internet and at gun shows).
Those 54 senators represent these states (I’ve counted 1/2 for split states, and spelled out the M states so you don’t get confused): WA, OR, CA, CO, NM, 1/2 Montana, 1/2 SD, Minnesota, 1/2 AZ, HI, 1/2 IA, 1/2 Missouri, IL, 1/2 IN, 1/2 LA, Michigan, 1/2 OH, WV, VA, 1/2 NC, 1/2 FL, PA, NY, VT, 1/2 NH, Maine, Massachusetts, RI, CT, NJ, DL, Maryland.
Using 2010 census data, how much of the population do those 54 votes represent? Assuming 1/2 of the population whose states split their senate votes, we get the following number of people:
7+4+37+5+2+.5+.5+5+3+1+3+3+13+3+2+10+6+2+8+5+9.5+13+19+1+.5+1+7+1+4+9+1+6 = 192 million (the states’ populations are listed in the same order as the states above, rounded to the nearest million).
That’s 192/308 million people – 62% of the population. Please don’t misread what I intend by this number – of course each of those states’ populations are not 100% (or 50%) in support of this measure, the point is just how many of the country’s representatives, in terms of raw population, voted for this measure.
That means 54 senators representing 62% of the population voted to increase background checks, and therefore, it did not pass.
This is doubly irrational. Here are the two obvious ways this makes no sense:
First – 54/100 senators voted in favor. Filibuster rules being what they have now become – essentially a random decision on the part of Senate Republicans, that any piece of legislation needs a 60/100 votes to pass, something which has no basis in the constitution – a majority of the legislative body voted in favor of a routine amendment and therefore it “failed.” This makes no sense.
Second – those 54 senators represent 62% of the population or thereabouts. But because the senate exists in the first place (and fine – that *does* have a constitutional basis, even if a destructive and unnecessary one that was to some extent put in place to maintain slavery) – 62% of the country’s population is not enough, simply because of the fact that the other 38% lives in states that get 46 votes. It’s well documented, but just remember – every voter in Wyoming is overrepresented in the senate; every voter in New York is underrepresented, just because of what state boundaries existed at the time of the country’s founding and what was necessary to get those states to ratify the original constitution.
To repeat – let’s stop blaming the NRA. They (and other lobbying organizations) advocate for what they want using a system that allows them to fairly easily achieve their ends. Clearly most people reading this believe them to be wrong (as do I) but my broader point is, they’re not a majority interest, and yet are able to achieve their aims.
We have to fix that system. So far as I know, it has no analogy in any other affluent constitutional democracy on this planet. Why are we continually so surprised when a broken system fails to work?