It’s hard to see the U.S. Senate as a democratic institution in the 21st century. A voter from Wyoming has nearly 70 times the representation as a citizen from California. And that understates the case significantly because on top of that lop-sided balance, the Senate also has rules that call for super-majorities, giving those small states even more power.
Alan Durning from the Sightline Institute made this point a couple of years ago when he wrote: “The Senate doesn’t just magnify small-states’ influence a little. It magnifies their power massively. Consider the Cascadia region, which covers all of Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, plus parts of Alaska, California, Montana, and Wyoming (along with the Canadian province of British Columbia). Each of these states, of course, has equal representation in the U.S. Senate. This chart shows the number of people per U.S. Senator in these states. There are 18 million Californians for each of the state’s two Senators. In Wyoming, the equivalent number is 272,000. If every U.S. Senator represented the same number of people as do Wyoming’s two Senators, Oregon would have 14 Senators. That’s right, Oregon would have 14 Senators! Washington, for its part, would have 24, far outnumbering its current 9 Representatives in the House. California? California would have 136.”
Now calculate those numbers for Indian country. The Census says there are 5.1 million American Indians and Alaska Natives in the U.S. So, using the same formula of 272,000, there would be at least 18 Native American representatives in the Senate.
Don’t like that formula? Well, the collective landmass of tribal nations, villages, and communities, tops 87,000 square miles. That’s a larger land base than most states (the average for the 50 states is only 75,881.66 square miles.)
Later today we’ll find out if the Senate is going to take even baby steps to limit filibuster (now at the point where a Senator only has to threaten a filibuster to stop legislation unless there are 60 votes).
But on the issue of austerity, the irony is that the Senate represents the best hope going forward for a balanced approach to how budgets are cut.
Congressional budgets are a relatively modern enterprise. Before the 1970s, the federal budget was presented by the President and then Congress passed appropriation bills for each agency.
But that changed because President Nixon would not spend all of the money appropriated by Congress. “Congress was concerned about the unprecedented scale of the Nixon Administration’s application of this power,” says a paper from the House Budget Committee. “This action also arguably circumvented the veto process to block acts of Congress. Hence a significant component of budget reform was its restriction on the President’s impoundment authority.”
In other words: Congress started writing budgets to spend more money, not less.
This has led to a process based on the crisis of the moment. One day it’s the debt ceiling. The next it’s the fiscal cliff. There is no process in place for negotiation, compromise and action. Instead the government is funded on a Continuing Resolution, a sort of ad hoc, automatic budget based on the previous year’s spending. And, on top of that mess, the only budget in law at this point is the Budget Control Act, requiring across-the-board budget cuts in March.
Yesterday Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, said it’s time to restore regular order to the process. The new chairman of the budget committee said, “the Senate will once again return to regular order and move a budget resolution through the Budget Committee and to the Senate floor. I’ve been discussing this path with my colleagues in the weeks since the year-end deal before I officially became chairman of this committee, and now that Congress is back in session, we are ready to get to work.”
She said Republicans have a choice. House members are “doubling down” on their push for budget cuts in the next round. “Republicans can either say they want to have a budget debate in the Budget Committees, or they can say they would prefer to negotiate the issue lurching from crisis to crisis—but they can’t say both. It simply doesn’t make sense,” Murray said.
That would mean the Senate and House would pass budgets and then negotiate a bill that could pass in both bodies. Of course it’s not that simple. There’s also the expiration of this year’s budget, the Continuing Resolution, and the sequester will begin in March. Even after those cuts, many House members want more. Their view of the budget and federal spending is absolute: Austerity or nothing.
Indian country and its programs will get a fair shake in the Senate. That is clear from past budgets and the priorities that Murray again articulated yesterday. “Democrats are eager to contrast our pro-growth, pro-middle class budget priorities with the House Republicans’ Ryan budget that would end Medicare as we know it, gut investments in jobs and programs middle class families depend on, and cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations,” Murray said. “We know that when our priorities are laid out next to Republicans’, the public stands with us.”
So democratic or not – a small “d” here – the Senate is the best hope for slowing the austerity rush.
Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He lives in Fort Hall, Idaho, and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Join the discussion about austerity. A new Facebook page has been set up at: www.facebook.com/IndianCountryAusterity.