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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

What an elected Senate did to the balance of power in the United States

(Cross-posted from Burkean Canuck).
The U.S. Senate wasn't always elected by popular vote.  Prior to 1903 when Oregon first selected a U.S. Senator by popular election, U.S. Senators had been chosen by the state legislatures (Article I, Section 3, U.S. Constitution).    The 17th Amendment to the United States Constitution requiring popular election of U.S. Senators was adopted on April 8th 1913 once the amendment passed the Connecticut state legislature -- the 35th state to do so.

What did popular election do the the balance of power in the U.S. federation?

  1. U.S. Senators were no longer delegates of the state legislature, representing the state legislature.  Instead, they could claim to represent the voters of that state;
  2. As a result of popular election, U.S. Senators were no longer accountable to the state legislature.  They were no longer required to face the wrath of the state legislature if they failed to represent the state legislature.  The U.S. Senate was no longer a "House of the States";
  3. Popular election tended to concentrate power in the federal government.  The U.S. Senate was intended to give each state -- each state government -- a voice and check on federal power.  But with popular election, U.S. Senators could ignore the state legislature and appeal over the heads of the state legislature to voters.  As a result, the state legislatures lost this check on federal power;
  4. Popular election made the U.S. Senate subject to the ebbs and flows of federal politics instead of state politics.  What do I mean by that?  Just this:  with popular election, if one political party is badly discredited at the federal level, that will tend to be reflected in federal elections to the advantage of the other party.  Prior to popular election, U.S. Senators were subject to the ebb and flow of party credibility in their respective states.

And so, to those who think a "triple-E Senate" or, even, an elected Senate is the be-all, end-all medicine for all that ails the Canadian federation and the provinces' influence in it I say:  Be careful what you wish for.

Here are my questions for advocates of a popularly elected Senate:

  1. With an elected Senate, how much longer do you suppose the federal government would bother with federal-provincial conferences?
  2. Which premiers now have influence on the federal government?
  3. How much influence do you suppose the premiers' meetings would have on federal policy?
  4. How would a popularly elected Canadian Senate affect things like, say, "equalization" or discussions pursuant to "the fiscal imbalance?"
  5. Whose interests would a popularly elected Canadian Senate serve?  Alberta's or British Columbia's?  Ontario's or Quebec's?
  6. Which provinces are under- and over-represented in the Senate, the House of Commons, and the federal cabinet?
  7. Whose view of the Canadian federation would a popularly elected Senate serve -- the centralizers or the decentralizers?

"Just askin'."

Posted by Russ Kuykendall on May 30, 2006 in Canadian Politics | Permalink


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Your first couple of questions are moot as the provinces don't have a say in who gets appointed to the senate now. If we changed to a triple-E senate they still wouldn't. Status quo as far as the provincial capitals are concerned.

The difference would be that the senate would have real power derived from the legitimacy that being elected grants. It would counter the lower house, not the provinces. The regions would have more balance to Ontario and Quebec current dominance.

In a regional representation scenario, it would depend on how the seats were dispersed. A 5 regions model would work. A model where the east coast and Quebec could endlessly vote themselves everyone else's money (they're 6 of 10 provinces between them,) would collapse the country in about 10 minutes. PEI should never have the same representation in the senate as the large provinces. Even in the Senate. But the Maritimes plus NFLD as one region, QC, ON, and BC as regions and the prairies as a region would work. The power of ON & QC would be diminished without being ridiculous about it.

If the goal is to have provincial governments whine endlessly to Ottawa about more money all the time, we could have the premiers appoint Senators under the current system. I fail to see how the premiers serve the interests of the provinces any better than the people of the province. The people don't need to be re-elected.

Posted by: Warwick | 2006-05-30 8:22:44 AM

WRT point number seven: Considering that the Senate is currently stacked with Liberal-Senators-for-life, how could an elected Senate possibly be more centralist?

Posted by: EBD | 2006-05-30 9:26:53 AM

Responses to the questions:

1. Getting rid of the powerless posturing of fed/prov conferences would be a good thing.

2. Less influence for the premiers but more influence for the smaller provinces.

3. See response to 2.

4. Same discussion different players. EEE gives AB et al an equal footing within the federal system and thus more real power.

5. The provinces with more senate seats are overrepresented (i.e. Ontario and Que et al) the ones with less are under represented.

6. All Canadians. The lack of EEE will spell the doom of this country sometime in the future unless it is enacted. (It almost broke up the US)

7. It might be inert in that context. Certainly more federal government spending will be done in provinces outside of Qc and ON but the power of influence provincial premiers will have on federal affairs will be lessened.


Warwick: The senate needs to recognize the equality of the provinces. Population equality should be recognized in the HOC. (i.e. PEI should have only one MP. That's how they do it in the US and it seems to work.

Posted by: Gord Tulk | 2006-05-30 10:43:22 AM


But the New England states don't make up 50% of the total like the Maritime/NFLD provinces do in Canada. Even then, Mass. has a whole lot of people and the East here in Canada doesn't.

I realize that the US has some very small states (like Delaware and Rhode Island) but there isn't the case where a small region with a lot of small states with very few people can form a bloc that holds the rest of the country hostage to its demands like in Canada. Also note that the East Coast of Canada is one huge "have not" region that endlessly looks for other people's money. Most of the small US states are comparatively rich compared to their national average.

Look at map (either area or population, it doesn't matter) of Canada and see that the Eastern 5 provinces could force anything they wanted through the senate - or block anything they wanted. Add Quebec and it's rape and pillage day in the senate - every day!

A triple-e senate based on equal provincial rep instead of regional rep would mean that Alberta is irrelevant in either house and subject to raiding and pillage in a way that they aren't now (and that includes the status quo that allowed the NEP.) 10 Equal provinces equals no country. That may make the separatists in the various regions like Speller and the BQ happy but would do nothing good for everyone else.

Posted by: Warwick | 2006-05-30 11:00:18 AM

Add also that there are two "have" provinces (ON, AB) and one or two provinces at par (SK, BC) and the 6 provinces that are "Have-not" welfare areas.

You want to give the sponges the right to determine how much of other people's money to vote themselves?

In the US, the senate is a pork and waste pit. Just look at Alaska's billion dollar "bridge to nowhere" and the 1000's of items of pork put into just about every bill. Canada is bad enough without more interest groups in my pocket.

Posted by: Warwick | 2006-05-30 11:04:30 AM

The US Senate was defacto elected before 1903 - recall the Lincoln-Douglas Debates took place while both were running for the Senate. Further, South Carolina first introduced the direct primary in 1888. That said, the "Oregon System" was very important in the move toward dejure elected senators.

For a very thorough examination of the 17th amendment and federalism see: Ralph A. Rossum, "Federalism, the Supreme Court, and the Seventeenth Amendment: the irony of constitutional democracy," Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2001.

Posted by: MSYB | 2006-05-30 12:25:53 PM


You make some good points. However the key is to maintain the equality of the provincial juristictions. If you think (and I tend to agree) that PEI is too small to exist as a province - that there are too many provinces in that region relative to say, Ontario - then let's consolidate the maritimes into one province and/or divide the larger provinces - Ontario into three and Que. into three.

A while back I looked at the regional imbalances in Canada today and compared them to the US at the turn of the century. The imbalances were roughly equal.So If the US ventured forth I see no reason why we shouldn't have the courage to follow suit.

I would however dispute the Pork accusations. Pork barreling is just as bad or worse as it is in the US. It is just more concentrated in QC and Ont with a few crumbs to places like PEI where votes are easily bought. In the US the pork is more fairly distributed because there is a EEE senate.

The saving grace in the US is that it is much more transparent - it has to be legislated and the public can see who voted for it. In Canada the PMO and the departments can engage in pork much more discretely.

I hate pork probably just as much as you do and I am hoping that the CP with capable ministers like Mr. Fortier in PWC will put systems in place to get rid of much of it.

Posted by: Gord Tulk | 2006-05-30 3:31:27 PM

What Gord and Warwick are saying makes me think that the Senate is the second priority after fiscal imbalance and equalization.

The fiscal imbalance is the priority that needs to be dealt with first because in the end, the Senate is all about money and pork.

So picking up on Warwick’s 5 regions, I wonder how the fiscal imbalance would work if the 3 Prairie Provinces were lumped together into a Virtual Fiscal Province before any distribution was carried out on equalization.

Then the 4 Atlantic Provinces could be lumped together as a Virtual Province and use per capita to divide the treasure from Ottawa, rather than by Province. Let the 4 Premiers try to work together to gain some economies of scale like any Atlantic business might.

Over time the Virtual Provinces, created for equalization purposes, could then decide if they wanted to formalize other consolidations of bureaucracies. That’s when making the Senate more democratic would make sense.

I don’t understand equalization well enough to hazard a guess as to what changes in the equalization math that would cause. But I’m pretty sure it would change the formula and how people think about the country’s fiscal pie.

I also think that over time a good by-product coming out of the 5 Regions would be to somehow improve the perpetual annoyance of Quebec as a distinct society. We have a huge landmass with maybe at least 5 distinct societies in it. If so, let’s run the fiscal policy that way too.

Posted by: nomdenet | 2006-05-30 4:23:55 PM

"I don’t understand equalization well enough to hazard a guess as to what changes in the equalization math that would cause. But I’m pretty sure it would change the formula and how people think about the country’s fiscal pie."

Nomdenet, me clarify the equalization formula for you.

Imagine you've been working like a dog all day from sunup to sundown, trying to earn enough to pay your mortgage, buy clothes for your kids, and put some food in the fridge. When you come home, your life partner has been working all day cleaning and cooking, and has baked a big, juicy apple pie for you, which is cooling off on the window sill as you walk into the kitchen. Just when you're about to say, "Let's eat!", you see a burly hand reaching up and grabbing the pie away from the window sill.

"Hey!", you yell, "What's the cotton-pickin' idea?".

The guy who is stealing your pie says, "We have to take this pie so it can be equalized. You see, there are lots of families living on this street who say that the house they are living in is too rocky, too far from the grocery store, too cold, too culturally, how should I say it, "unique", too whatever, for them to go out and earn their own pie. But don't worry! You will get an equal share of the pie - minus the amount which we determine you got because of the "special advantage" you enjoy because of living here in this expensive house."

So he takes the pie, and you see that first he takes it to his own house, where a lot of his friends are already waiting, with their Beemers in the driveway, and their best clothes on, like they came to have a big party. After all kinds of riotous noise and shrieks and laughter from that house, you see some people leaving the house with little slices of pie gift-wrapped in gold foil, as if they're delivering some kind of wonderful present from the people living in the party house. They distribute the pie all up and down the block, to all the places with giant weeds growing in the lawn, to the house where the crack dealer lives, to the house with the old, abandoned fishing boat on blocks in the driveway, even to the bunch of rubbies that are always hanging around on the corner. Finally you here a "clank" in your mailbox, and you open it to find a few crumbs, not enough to feed anybody, but still gift-wrapped in the most beautiful gold foil, as if someone has given you something tremendously valuable and special.

When you start to grumble out loud, the burly guy who delivered your crumbs turns around and holds up his fist in your face.

"Hey! Did you complete your census? 'Cause if you didn't, yer breaking the law buddy! Otherwise, how would we know how much to equalize?"

You try complaining to the neighborhood committee, but because there are nine other houses plus three vacant lots with shacks on them which are also represented in the committee, you're outvoted. So you complain to the cops that you're being robbed, but they just laugh at you, because some doughhead decided that cops should be elected by popular vote ("because it's the only way we can make them accountable"), and you're outvoted again. So you do the only rational thing that you could possibly do in this situation. You quit bothering to paint your house and mow the lawn, you go to work late and come home early, you move your couch onto the porch, crack a beer, sit back, and wait for your piece of fiscal pie.

And as you toss your empty beercan on the sidewalk and watch your kids fight over it with the rubbies from down the street you chuckle to yourself, "Because this is Canada, buddy - and in Canada, we CARE for people."

Posted by: Justzumgai | 2006-05-30 6:43:06 PM

All good points...my thoughts:

1.What difference would it make? Except that perhaps equally represented provinces would have less to complain about.

2. Again, what difference? I suspect the sources of influence would remain the same with the exception perhaps of reducing the unwarranted numerical representation of Quebec or Ontario.

3. No difference.
4. There might be some Rational discussion.
5. Does the concept of EQUAL escape someone here?
6. Ontario and Quebec. See Equal
7. Unknown and un-answerable question. One could presume that the equality of representation would reduce or eliminate the discussion of central vs. decentral gvmt. completely.

In adition the exercise could also lead to serious reform of the supreme court. Oh my would that be a good thing?

Posted by: PGP | 2006-05-30 6:45:31 PM

EI and Equalization are the crack cocaine of the Atlantic provinces.

Posted by: Gord Tulk | 2006-05-30 7:30:51 PM

PGP, we don’t know “what difference” until we deal with the “beercans on the sidewalk” and the “crack cocaine” addiction-like habits that have been caused by Ottawa stealing from achievers to give to failures – a recipe for disaster.

Actually, I don’t even mind supporting their habits awhile longer, mushy leftie that I’m becoming on this Blog. We owe the addicts that much since we’re now partly responsible for keeping them hooked and supplied with their habit. But the addicts have to agree to rehab if they want us to help them get out of the crack house.

Also, as you allude to, the possibility of an elected Senate could help in curbing the potential abuses of un-elected Supremes. Plus we just had a close call after 13 years of a PMO ruling by divine right. That PMO animal has to be caged with more checks and balances; next time we might not be so lucky and we could end up with a more serious nut case in that overly powerful office. Let’s act while we can.

But this thread has convinced me that we should first follow the money. Let’s sort out the imbalances and keep those “burly hands off my piece of pie”. Then we can set up checks and balances that are suitable to whatever set of Provincial Regions that make sense for this century.

Posted by: nomdenet | 2006-05-30 8:20:55 PM

I don't get it. Would you mind explaining yourself a little more succinctly?

Posted by: Reggie | 2006-05-30 9:03:37 PM

Haven't in 58 years of not very much thought devoted to the subject figured out what the senate was for and why it would be worth fixing up. Some fixer-uppers are best bulldozed. Best suggestion I ever heard was for a triple-A senate: abolish-abolish-abolish!

Posted by: Paul | 2006-05-30 9:42:23 PM

Abolishing the senate - the only mechanism we have to countrbalnce the heavily populated area's dominance of the HOC - would spell the end of Canada sooner or later.

Posted by: Gord Tulk | 2006-05-30 10:12:45 PM

NOT about balance of power but what the citizens want. Citizens majority power left or right gets things done for the majority. Balance of power not much happens.

Posted by: Larry | 2006-05-31 2:33:31 AM

Your discussion is interesting and enlightening but I think all of you are still too optimistic about government.

The only thing "possible" is to cut taxes. That is always popular down here because we still have slightly less than 50% dependent upon government.

Saint Mark Steyn recently wrote that the Canadian government recently took credit for "creating" 53,000 new jobs as a wonderful contribution to the great economy up there. But then Saint Mark explained that 6,000 of the jobs were new start up private businesses, and 8,000 of the jobs were new hires in private sector businesses and the remaining 39,000 were just more burden of government employees carried on the backs of the 14,000 actual producers.

You folks have crossed over beyond the point where more people are tax receivers than those who are tax losers (i.e. payers).

With a 17th Amendment or not, if the majority of people can "vote" themselves a pay raise through more government, well, that is the problem.

Many of you folks seem to have a good handle on world history. Must a Revolution be bloody? Or maybe yours can be the first where nobody gets hurt other than his feelings.

Posted by: Conrad-USA | 2006-05-31 3:37:09 PM

Conrad you’re a Saint.

Agreed Conrad. We have government representing about 43% of our economy and you have 35%. Moreover you have those stealth bombers and we don’t.

We have to get down to 33%, which is where Bush says he wants to go. But I know you’d like to see the Hildebeast and Al Sharpton in power in 2008 to cut your taxes faster … :>)

Gentlemen, start your engines.

Posted by: nomdenet | 2006-05-31 4:44:05 PM

I think I'm going to like Hildebeast as Prez, but I won't be voting for her. I'm only going to vote Democrat just once, this November. Then by 2008 I'll be way into a good solid conservative party (i.e. "third" Party) until I can help get them into office someday.

I have a brilliant theory about how Hildebeast is going to do all of us a big favor, unintentionally of course.

Posted by: Conrad-USA | 2006-05-31 5:40:39 PM

I hear she’s going to okay Cuban cigars.

Actually Conrad, by 2008 we’ll be rolling with a majority Conservative government and Canada will be the country of choice for conservatives.

All Saints will be welcome.

Posted by: nomdenet | 2006-05-31 6:03:55 PM

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