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Joseph Keller

Representative Government?

(28 March 1949)

From The Militant, Vol. 13 No. 13, 28 March 1949, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

There is a popular assumption, constantly reinforced by the capitalist propaganda of the state, school, church and press, that the American people enjoy representative and democratic government. We are supposed to govern ourselves through officials we have freely elected to represent the will and interests of the majority.

It has come as a shock to many people, therefore, to see how a minority of Senators, through the use of the filibuster, can block any measure no matter how much desired by the people. And the “right” of such a Senatorial minority to obstruct indefinitely the passage of bills mandated by the people has just been upheld by a majority vote of the entire Senate.

The undemocratic procedure of the filibuster is but one aspect of the undemocratic and unrepresentative nature of the Senate as such. For the Senate was designed from its very founding as a means for frustrating the popular will.

Most of the constitutional founders were not convinced democrats. A majority of them were wealthy land-owners and merchants. They therefore established two federal legislative bodies, with an “upper chamber,” the Senate, as a “check and balance” on the “lower chamber,” the House of Representatives. While the number of Representatives is based, in part, on the proportional population of the states, the Senate is elected on a strict geographic basis, two from each state regardless of size.

Today, six Southern poll-tax states Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia – with a combined population about equal to that of New York state, have a total of 12 Senators to New York’s two. The seven poll-tax states, including Texas, because of the poll-tax restriction on voting cast a total vote in the 1948 presidential elections of 2,911,305, as compared to New York’s 6,111,530. A similar proportion holds in the voting for Senators. Thus, the 14 Senators from the seven poll-tax states who spearheaded the recent filibuster against civil rights legislation were elected by less than half the votes cast for just two Senators from New York. Over 50% of New Yorkers voted, as against the 10 to 15% permitted to vote in the poll-tax states. The Southern Senators literally represent a minority of a minority.

We can see how unrepresentative the Senate is when we consider that Nevada, the smallest state with 110,247 population, has the same number of Senators as New York, with 125 times as many people. The two Nevada Senators have just as much power as the two from New York, and if they have been in the Senate longer they can wield even greater power, because they are in better position to succeed to the powerful committee posts, whose chairmen are selected by seniority.

The Southern Senators, because of the virtual one-party system in most Southern states, are almost irremovable. Some have held their seats for decades. A number of the most important committee posts this session are held by the aged chair-warmers from the Bourbon South who are able to keep themselves longest in Senatorial office through the poll-tax and terrorism against the Negro people. As heads of committees, these Southern Senators are in position to bottle up most legislation they oppose.

Two-thirds of the Senators who held forth in the 80th Congress still remain in the Senate. They are elected for six-year terms and even though the people voiced their mandate for social reforms in the election of Truman, they could not touch the two out of every three Senators who were not up for re-election. Senators elected on a six-year basis are far less responsive to popular demands than Representatives who come up for re-election every two years.

Some political commentators have called the Senate “Our House of Lords.” But the British House of Lords, while based on inherited titles of nobility, is far less powerful than the U.S. Senate. The House of Commons in England, similar to our House of Representatives, can pass any measure over the adverse vote of the House of Lords. The 96 long-term Senators – or even a filibustering minority of them – can indefinitely block any bill.

But if, by some miracle, they do pass a bill in the interests of the people, there is still another “check and balance” – the Supreme Court. This appointed body of nine who hold office for life can set aside any law passed by Congress. Between them, the 96-man Senate and the nine-man Supreme Court constitute an oligarchy of government standing completely above the will of the people.

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