Any attention to our little state," Harvey...


March 06, 1995|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

"NOBODY PAYS any attention to our little state," Harvey Greuel of Fargo, N.D., told the New York Times. "Well they're paying attention now."

He was referring to the fact that the fate of the Balanced Budget Amendment had been sealed by North Dakota's two senators, Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad. They voted against it, and it lost by a vote.

That plus the fact that Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who orchestrated the fight against the amendment, is from South Dakota, reminds me that I haven't written recently about what is really wrong with Washington. Empty Western prairies get two senators if they call themselves a state.

Why should North Dakota get two senators and South Dakota get two senators? Western Maryland doesn't get two senators. Southern Maryland doesn't get two. Yet each of those areas has about as many people as the two Dakotas.

Now I know the textbook reason why every state gets an equal number of senators. It's the Great Compromise. The big states at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 wanted Congress to represent population and wealth. The little states wanted each state to have an equal voice. So the delegates compromised by making one chamber of Congress represent population and one not.

I have no problem with that. The most populous state in 1787 was only about 10 times bigger than the least populous.

But thereafter, we have let in every Tom, Dick and Harry of a state, making the Senate a joke as a democratic, republican institution.

Take North and South Dakota. In the 1880s there was one Dakota Territory. Its population was about 400,000. They split it in two and made both places states -- with four senators. Now maybe it would have made a little sense to make a single state, Dakota, but two?

The argument has always been that statehood would spur development and growth. Seems to me there ought to be a corollary. If it doesn't, if disparities become too great, you go back to becoming a territory. Since 1930, South Dakota's population has been static and North Dakota's has declined. Today California is nearly 50 times more populous than North Dakota.

* * * *

Actually, despite the prominent role the Dakotas played in beating it, the small state advantage worked in favor of the proponents of the Balanced Budget Amendment.

They got 66 votes (counting Bob Dole's real vote, as opposed to his tactical "no" after it was all over). That's 66 percent of the Senate.

But those "ayes" represented only 62 percent of the population. (A state's total population is credited when both senators voted the same way, divided when they split.)

Close enough, so fair enough, but theoretically it is possible for 34 senators from 17 states having only 8 percent of the nation's population to block a constitutional amendment -- and 52 from states having only 18 percent to enact a law.

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