Structural problems with the Senate in the past have been treated as too ingrained to be fixed. But as urgent social movements struggle toward fruition, a focus on the chamber as the last and greatest obstacle to the free exercise of democracy in the United States has sharpened.
More than two centuries ago, to incentivize small states to join the union, the framers of the US constitution gave every state two senators, an arrangement that has always left some citizens vastly overrepresented in the body. But not until recent decades did a clear partisan split emerge in which Democrats were far more likely to represent bigger states, while Republicans represented many small states.
The trend has created an immense discrepancy in the influence that voters from less populous, mostly rural – and white, and Republican – states wield in the Senate, compared with voters from states with big cities and more voters of color.
Today, thanks to urbanization and related shifts, the state of California has 70 times as many people as the state of Wyoming – but each state still gets two senators, giving the small, conservative state the ability to counterbalance the giant, liberal state in any vote on energy policy, taxation, immigration, gun control or criminal justice reform.
As part of this dynamic, Democratic Senate candidates regularly rack up millions more votes overall than Republican candidates – but the Republican caucus, as if by magic, does not shrink, and sometimes even grows.
Few analysts think the basic formula for the Senate will change anytime soon. “I think that of all the things that will not change, the equal representation of every state is at the top of that list,” said Shapiro. “That’s baked into the constitution.”
But other proposals for major changes in the Senate are gathering steam in a way that could produce a breakthrough. One such proposal would reform the filibuster, a rule giving the Senate minority unilateral power to block almost any majority move it chooses.
The filibuster has historically been used by both parties in different ways, but it “has always been used to block measures that would lead to racial equity and justice”, said Erika Maye, deputy senior director of criminal justice and democracy campaigns for Color of Change, a racial justice advocacy group.
“It’s been used to stop anti-lynching bills, to uphold the racist poll tax, to delay civil rights legislation – and more recently healthcare, immigration and gun violence reform,” Maye said.
“And so in this Congress, in the Senate, we expect it to be used to halt progress on many major policy initiatives that would improve the lives of Black people in particular.”
The filibuster is not the only bulwark of white power built into the Senate, which currently counts only three African American members out of 100 total, next to 68 white men. The disproportionate power of rural states in the chamber translates to a disproportionate power for white voters in general.
The columnist David Leonhardt calculated in 2018 that white Americans are represented in the Senate at a rate of 0.35 senators for every million people, versus 0.26 senators for African Americans and 0.19 for Hispanic Americans, prompting the New York Times opinion page to brand the Senate “affirmative action for white people”.
To address this discrepancy, a growing number of leaders, including Barack Obama, have advocated for statehood for Puerto Rico and Washington DC – two majority-minority territories whose representatives in Congress do not currently have the power to vote.
Adding the two as states could add multiple Democratic senators of color to the body, not enough to guarantee a majority, but enough to better reflect the populace and its policy priorities.
Another avenue for progressive change would be to elect Democratic senators in supposedly Republican states, as Georgia did earlier this year, thanks to determined grassroots organizing. The announced retirements next year of three moderate Republican senators, apparently disillusioned with the Donald Trump era, from swing states present an opportunity for Democrats in the 2022 elections.
The battle for the Senate has also intensified as partisan lines have grown deeper. The makeup of the Senate majority mattered less decades ago, when senators voted across party lines more frequently.
But cross-party cooperation in the Senate has dwindled as American politics has grown more sharply partisan, with pressure from cable news and social media, a culture of partisan demonization and recrimination, nonstop fundraising demands and the rise of incessant campaigning for office allowing no time to breathe – or legislate – between one election and the next.
That does not mean senators are no longer capable of breaking ranks, as the Louisiana Republican Bill Cassidy notably did in voting to convict Trump at his second impeachment trial, along with six other Republicans.
The key to fixing the Senate, Shapiro thinks, lies in more senators acting like Cassidy, to “put national interest above partisan interest”.
“I try to call on senators to be senators, like what they’re supposed to be,” Shapiro said, instead of blindly following the party leadership. “They’ve abandoned their responsibility to do the job.”