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William Tomasko '13: Not a people's Senate

Recently, The Herald's editorials have been — appropriately — frustrated with the United States Senate.

In the editorial "Senate slowpokes," (Feb. 5), the Senate is criticized for failing to act on the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act that the House passed last September. Three days later, another editorial, "Making us sick" (Feb. 8), condemned a feature in the Senate's health care reform plan that would increase the costs of university-provided health insurance.

SAFRA, currently stalled in the Senate, would have the Department of Education directly conduct all student loans, eliminating the role private banks play as intermediaries. The measure would save $87 billion in ten years, and the savings would go to funding Pell Grants and reducing federal student-lending interest rates. Since tuition costs are rapidly rising across the country, SAFRA seems like a badly needed, common sense policy.
Another Senate-related grudge involves a part of the health care bill. The offending provision would alter the regulatory definition of student health insurance plans. The change could force universities to sell these plans to people who are not college students, which, as the editorial explains, would make the plans more expensive for students.
The editorial laments how apparently insensitive the Senate has been to the financial pressures on college students, observing that "the Senate seems to be making a habit out of unfriendliness to higher education."

Both policy problems reveal the Senate's dysfunction: it takes an arbitrarily large supermajority of 60 senators to move to vote on a bill, and that procedural quirk has contributed to the delay in passing SAFRA. However, these two issues also highlight a more fundamental flaw: The Senate is not built to represent young people, or even any people at all.

Around the same time these editorials were published, I noticed an opinion piece in the Washington Post that drew my attention to the problem of representation. The writer, Annie Lowrey, explains that Senators who (seemingly cynically) directed federal funds to their states in exchange for voting for health care reform were merely following their institutional obligation. These Senators were dutifully serving the interests of their states because, well, they were elected by states.

Our Senators have gotten pretty good at representing their states. Americans can be assured that two Senators and one House member will always represent their local interests (unless they happen to live in DC). However, Lowrey notes that voters cannot be assured that their Senators will represent any of their identifying characteristics besides geography.

She imagines hypothetical Senates in which different demographic groups, not different state populations, elect members. If Senators were elected by specific income brackets, she explains, just five Senators would represent Americans earning over $100,000 a year. Thirty-four would be accountable to middle-class voters with between $30,000 and $80,000 in income. The constituents of these 34 Senators would benefit from SAFRA's new tuition assistance, and they could pressure their members to pass the bill.
If different age groups were represented, 13 Senators would be devoted to the needs of 18- to 24-year-olds . Surely, many of those 13 would aggressively support SAFRA and oppose changing the status of student health plans because of how those measures would affect their voters.

Of course, all of these scenarios are wildly implausible and may not be ideal. Particular demographic groups do not have wholly unified interests, and Lowrey did not write the column to demand that the imagined scenarios be enacted. Rather, she wrote to remind readers that the Senate is not naturally democratic — it is built to represent states and their regional interests, not people and their specific needs.

People should be able to make Senators fear for their re-election prospects if they are not responsive to groups' needs, such as help paying for tuition. Unfortunately, Senators can be more interested in sending earmarks to their states than they are focused on securing aid for people in need.

It's always valuable to try to hold Senators accountable by being sure to vote, contacting their offices, and contributing to the campaigns of Senators who appreciate our particular interests.

However, it's also crucial to understand that the Senate is designed to frustrate popular interests, giving our actions limited potential. Even though its members are now elected directly, the chamber is built to protect states, not enact the will of the people. If it were a democratic body, then each Wyoming resident wouldn't have 70 times more Senate representation than each California resident.

America's government, especially its Senate, is built to resist change, even when the change is popular. The Senate can be fundamentally, naturally frustrating to those who want more policies enacted to help people across the country rather than more earmarks to benefit particular regions.

William Tomasko '13 might just be bitter because he's from Washington, D.C., and doesn't get any senators.


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