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Is there a logical rationale for grouping people by state for federal government representation today (e.g. the US Senate)? I understand that precedent and reluctance to fundamentally alter the US constitution are perhaps reason enough for most, but barring these arguments, if the bicameral legislature were to be redefined today, what arguments would be used on the side of state-based seat allocation for the Senate? For argument purposes consider a proportional representation scheme such as open party-list proportional representation as an alternative.

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    Those are probably largely the same as they were when the Constitution was drafted. You could ask if any novel arguments were brought forth since then (but I rather doubt that's the case.) "modern benefits" is too vague, imho. Feb 10, 2021 at 18:00
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    Right, but the heterogeneity of each state's constituents in terms of desires, economic centers, etc. has changed radically since then, so I'm wondering what modern arguments in support of state-based allocation would look like with acknowledgement of this shift
    – DerekG
    Feb 10, 2021 at 18:03
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    Despite its complexity it is still a valid question, and the skeleton arguments can still be discussed. Furthermore, there is precedent for such movement for political ends (Bleeding Kansas, see link) so it's worth considering how this behavior and the Senate relate en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bleeding_Kansas#Early_elections
    – DerekG
    Feb 10, 2021 at 18:25
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    I understand that there are countries where a legislative house is not selected based on geography (for instance party-list proportional representation); that's not exactly my question. I want to understand the arguments for the system in place in the United States
    – DerekG
    Feb 10, 2021 at 22:18
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    Downvoted because it seems an objective answer is pretty well impossible, because "benefits" are almost always inherently subjective. For instance, I as a rural person think it is very beneficial to keep damned urbanites from controlling more of the country than they already do. Those urbanites may well hold the opposite opinion :-)
    – jamesqf
    Feb 11, 2021 at 4:22

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It is worth observing that the U.S. Supreme Court has held since the 1964 that allocating representatives in a legislative body other than the U.S. Senate on anything other than an equal population one man-one vote basis, is an unconstitutional violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

Prior to this ruling many states modeled their bicameralism on the federal U.S. Senate model and this is now unconstitutional for state and local governments to do.

In Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186 (1962), the United States Supreme Court held that redistricting qualifies as a justiciable question under the Fourteenth Amendment, thus enabling federal courts to hear Fourteenth Amendment-based redistricting cases.

In Wesberry v. Sanders, 376 U.S. 1 (1964), it held that districts in the United States House of Representatives must be approximately equal in population.

In Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533 (1964), it held that the electoral districts of state legislative chambers must be roughly equal in population:

Along with Baker v. Carr (1962) and Wesberry v. Sanders (1964), it was part of a series of Warren Court cases that applied the principle of "one person, one vote" to U.S. legislative bodies.

Prior to the case, numerous state legislative chambers had districts containing unequal populations; for example, in the Nevada Senate, the smallest district had 568 people, while the largest had approximately 127,000 people. Some states refused to engage in regular redistricting, while others enshrined unequal representation in state constitutions. The case of Reynolds v. Sims arose after voters in Birmingham, Alabama, challenged the apportionment of the Alabama Legislature; the Constitution of Alabama provided for one state senator per county regardless of population differences.

In a majority opinion joined by five other justices, Chief Justice Earl Warren ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause requires states to establish state legislative electoral districts roughly equal in population. Warren held that "legislators represent people, not trees or acres. Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests."

The U.S. Senate remains an anomaly because it is baked into the structure of the U.S. Constitution which is the basis of invalidating any legal arrangement on constitutional grounds, so it can't violate the constitution, and because the equal representation of the states in the U.S. Senate is the one thing that the U.S. Constitution states cannot be modified without the consent of the state whose representation in the U.S. Senate is reduced. Article V of the U.S. Constitution states that:

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.

So getting to the question:

What are the modern arguments for state-based Senate seat allocation?

Primarily that it is unconstitutional to change the status quo without what amounts to unanimous consent, and that given the clear partisan benefits of the status quo to one of the two major political parties vis-a-vis the other one, this is a political impossibility.

Somewhat more theoretically, the U.S. Constitution originally contemplated that the federal government would have an extremely limited role and that government would primarily be conducted at the state level.

Towards that end, the Senate was a compromise between the Articles of Confederation that preceded the current U.S. Constitution and required unanimous consent, and a unitary federal government with plenary legislative power like the U.K. parliament. It involved a smaller number of states (originally 13), at a time when those states felt an unprecedented sense of common purpose in the wake of the Revolutionary War, and the early states did not yet have the extreme disparities of population present today.

And, for a long time, the U.S. federal government was skeletal. It was funded almost entirely by customs duties. It did little beyond providing for national defense, postal services, international trade, and customs duty collection. Interstate commerce was comparatively simple and slow. The federal courts were small and didn't have intermediate courts of appeal. Federal judges and federal legislators often left their posts midterm for more important jobs in state government or in the private sector. Election procedures were slipshod and frequently resolved on a partisan basis by Congress. The civil service system and federal bureaucracy was not a thing. Federal constitutional rights did not apply to state and local officials.

This changed with the U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction, briefly attempted to retreat towards the status quo, and then grew gradually between the 1870s and 1930 in response to industrialization and greater interstate commerce and World War I, and then really ramped up in scale and scope with the New Deal during the Great Depression and WWII. It became impossible to accomplish reasonable policy goals without acting as a unified nation guided by federal policies.

By the time that the 50th state was admitted in the 1950s, the scope and scale of federal government activity and the number of states involved has ballooned far beyond what the founders could have foreseen, and advances in technology and economic organization made national regulation necessary in a way that it hadn't been in the late 18th century when the constitution was adopted.

Most of this change has happened without constitutional amendments, although the 17th Amendment calling for the direct election of Senators rather than their appointment by state legislators, really underlined the extent to which the federal government had become the primary rather than the secondary player in American federalism.

Is there a logical rationale for grouping people by state for federal government representation today (e.g. the US Senate)?

Not really. This arrangement reflected a conception of the United States as a political alliance of sovereign separate states much like the European Union is today, which hasn't been an accurate empirical description of how the United States actually operates for at least nine decades.

if the bicameral legislature were to be redefined today, what arguments would be used on the side of state-based seat allocation for the Senate?

The rub is that state based allocation of political power makes sense at some level when you are blending separate independent countries into a union when they have very distinct cultural identities.

But, the status quo in which 50 states span from coast to coast plus Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and several other smaller territories couldn't have arisen in the first place without being united in a single country with a coherent national identity. States are far more similar to each other by practice and by the realities of living with the same federal laws and a unified commercial body than they are constitutionally required to be.

For most of U.S. history, the biggest cultural divide and divide in political values in the U.S. has been between the North and the South, which came to a head in the U.S. Civil War, but still remains a point of great tension and the first order political divide in the U.S. In 2022, it was still impossible to get white contractors in Richmond, Virginia (a state the backed Biden in the most recent Presidential election), to remove confederate statutes from the public square. The divides that led to the Civil War are still alive and well in the United States and are now playing out over issues like abortion and LGBT rights and the death penalty.

The U.S. Senate has been tolerable despite its disconnect with the modern reality of the U.S. government mostly because its political divisions have, as it does today, closely tracked the political divisions of the U.S. House, with discrepancies between the two as much due to the lagging effect of having Senators serve six year terms a third at a time, as due to a strongly different partisan mix between the U.S. broken up into 435 Congressional districts, and the U.S. broken up into 50 states.

This, in turn, is the product of many decades of careful political calculation in the process of growing the number of U.S. states from 13 to 50, with states being approved to join the U.S. only when this could secure bipartisan support (often linking more than one state admission at once to do so), because it didn't tip the political balance in the Senate too much.

If the bargain had to be renegotiated, it almost surely would not have been done so in the manner it is now. Perhaps if it was unicameral at all it would have made the Senate like the House of Lords or Canadian Senate, a mere house of revision less powerful on most matters than the House rather than providing a source of absolute gridlock with veto power over all legislation. Alternatively, negotiating from scratch, states might divide power on regional lines rather than state lines, so that either the North or the South would have the political power to veto federal legislation not to their liking, or by providing major regionally organized political factions with a veto that was more transparent and direct.

No one designing a national constitution from scratch has replicated this feature of the U.S. Constitution for a very long time. Deeply ethnically and culturally divided countries like Lebanon, Iraq, and Bosnia have adopted constitutions that more explicitly give each major cultural faction a guaranteed amount of representation and the power, alone, or with other factions organized as such, to veto legislation.

For argument purposes consider a proportional representation scheme such as open party-list proportional representation as an alternative.

If one did this, why bother with bicameralism? Why not, for example, simply abolish the U.S. Senate and have state delegations to the House elected on a proportional representation basis?

Bottom Line

Political institutions evolve in path dependent ways and are inseparable from their history. There is no one right solution to how to design them.

After a long era of centralization and development of common ground in the U.S., we have come into an era where the U.S. is more deeply divided.

One possibility is that the Senate's current structure, by setting such a high bar for finding bipartisan support to change status quo policies and gridlocking the federal government is facilitating a new era of decentralization of government in which differing state policies on core issues become the norm again and the U.S. becomes less "one Nation indivisible" and more a confederation of countries with a common history and some shared arrangements.

Effectively, the current structure of the U.S. government allows for common action only when there is a high level of consensus, nearly approaching that of the Articles of Confederation unanimity requirement but allowing action to be taken without a "heckler's veto" of just a handful of states.

This is almost surely not optimal for U.S. economic growth or cultural unity, but it could be that autonomy is more valuable to Americans collectively than goals that can only be achieved through national legislation.

Whether this is desirable or not depends to some extent to the amount of stress from uncontrollable international and economic factors arising from technology and global circumstances. While there is no right political answer to political questions, there are often many clearly wrong answers to political questions (including doing nothing at all) that can have disastrous consequences for the nation because they have real world consequences.

If the United States encounters an existential challenge that requires prompt actions by the nation as a whole before a wide national consensus is reached on an issue, the nation will die or its political institutions will be broken in some way.

On the other hand, if the United States can avoid having to face existential stress tests, its inability to take decisive national action without a widespread consensus in a deeply divided nation could be survivable.

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The argument for the allocation is that the House of Representatives was intended to represent the popular opinion, and thus are allocated to states based on population (each state gets one rep guaranteed, plus additional based on population size). Each State gets Two seats in the Senate, regardless population or physical size. This means that states with larger populations have more power in the House, but have less in the Senate. The idea is to prevent a situation where California (Largest state by population) doesn't have a dominance over Wyoming (smallest state by population) and Wyoming can have some measure of comparable say in policy, which rarely aligns with California. Additionally, repartitioning the Senate is damn near impossible, as provisions in the Constitution state that no state may be denied equal suffrage in the senate without consent of the state, effectively baring any possible amendment that would change the senate make up from being more more closely focused on distribution that favor a proportional representation. It's the only part of the constitution that is expressly barred from being amended, which means the only way to change the way Senate seats are allocated is to completely toss the constitution, something for which no serious discussion has been had (most want to see changes, but not abandonment altogether).

It should be noted that the U.S. is not alone in their Upper House not being determined by proportional representation and many governments have their upper houses either indirectly elected OR not proportional to population of constituency (where as almost universally, the lower house is proportional to population. Additionally, most Federal Nations do allocate their upper house seats by even distribution to sub-national divisions. That said, the number of seats may not be "two" but is certainly more than "1" in most cases. America was just the first to do it.).

Historically speaking, the Upper House has always been more of the benefit of a government interest instead of a popular interest. For example, the U.K. parliament's House of Lords traditionally were representative of noble interests while it's lower house, The House of Commons was representative of the commoner interests.

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    One thing to note is the house used to have no cap on the number of members and it used to be "The U.S. Constitution called for at least one Representative per state and that no more than one for every 30,000 persons.". The cap of 435 that got placed on membership had a big impact on representation. If you go off that we would have close to ten thousand members now.
    – Joe W
    Jan 3, 2023 at 20:35
  • @JoeW: Even the cube root rule would give us 692 members as of the 2020 census. There's nothing special about the number 435; it's just that Congress failed to agree on the answer to "How many Representatives should we have?" after the 1920 census, so decided to just permanently leave it where it was.
    – dan04
    Jan 4, 2023 at 23:19
  • @dan04 the issue is that it causes different members to represent a different number of people instead of being more balanced like the founders intended.
    – Joe W
    Jan 4, 2023 at 23:38
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I think this question devolves into the question of "What are the modern benefits of states?".

The Senate was originally designed to represent state governments the way that the House was designed to represent the people in each state. This was later changed by the Seventeenth Amendment to allow the direct election of Senators, but they still represent the entirety of their state, the way they did when the government picked them. As long as each state has its own government which needs to address all the disparate concerns of its citizens (both urban and rural), then it makes sense to have representation at the national level of that same unit of population.

Additionally, the current Rural/Urban divide in politics is a relatively new situation. Compare the county-by-county maps from 1920 (100 years ago), 1968 (52 years ago), 2000 (20 years ago) and 2020 (now) - you can see that what used to be regional groupings by party has been gradually diffusing across the country. But that doesn't mean that this division is permanent. 20 years from now, it's very possible that the varying effects of climate change are the most important dividing issue, and the eastern states are opposed to the western states in how to best handle it.

1920 county map 1968 county map 2000 county map 2020 county map

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    You mention that The senate used to be appointed by the states themselves and was later changed to direct election like the house. It might be good to mention that part of the reason for this is that some Senate seats used to go unfilled for years because replacements would not get picked and the direct election was the way it was decided to fix that problem.
    – Joe W
    Feb 10, 2021 at 20:32
  • @JoeW - You might be right. I really only addressed why tying it to the existence of states makes sense, and didn't touch on the method for the election. I've linked the relevant amendment for now, and will consider elaborating on that part of it.
    – Bobson
    Feb 10, 2021 at 21:24
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    The reason I mention it is because people tend to think that Senators represent the people as they are elected by the people but that is only because some states failed to do their job and select Senators in a timely manner.
    – Joe W
    Feb 10, 2021 at 21:41
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    I don't think you're being historically accurate by saying that the Urban/Rural divide is a "new" thing because it was central to the U.S. political scene since the nation's founding (the Framers of the Constitution specifically mention the Urban/Rural divide as the reason for the the Virginia Compromise which established the the bicameral in first hand sources). The reason these graphs don't show this is that 1920s America was largely different. It also neglects socio-economic status as well and the shift of parties appeal over the years. These maps are poor indicators of that.
    – hszmv
    Jan 3, 2023 at 19:39
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    @hszmv - For the maps, the lack of consistency between them kindof annoys me, but I think they show what I'm trying for. In 1920, region was the best indicator as to how people voted. By 2000, it's much more interwoven, with pockets of blue scattered around in red areas, and some red spots in bluish areas. That's all they're here to show - how the mix of political leanings changed over time from being almost entirely state/region based to being based on a different grouping.
    – Bobson
    Jan 3, 2023 at 20:19

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