The Wyoming advantage

January 23, 1996|By Theo Lippman Jr.

SEVERAL TIMES over the years when I was writing a column for the page opposite this one, I complained about the fact that tiny states got just as many votes in the U.S. Senate as huge ones.

This made political sense in 1789, when the Constitution was approved. The smaller states would probably not have ratified a Constitution that did not so protect them. It even made sense of a sort philosophically. Popular democracy was hardly a feature of American governing thought. Blacks couldn't vote. Women couldn't vote. Non-property owners couldn't vote. Youths couldn't vote. It even made a little sense demographically speaking. The most populous state -- Virginia -- was only 10 times larger than the smallest -- Delaware.

But today we believe in an all-inclusive democracy. Women vote. Blacks vote. The homeless vote. Teen-agers vote. Registration is made easier and easier, and many pro-democracy advocates want registration dropped altogether. There is a movement on to allow prisoners to vote. Some professors and at least one federal judge want people to have more than one vote per election contest.

Clearly it offends contemporary American ideals to allow a few Wyoming voters to be represented by just as many senators as a multitude of Californians. California has over 60 times the population of Wyoming.

Some critics of the system have proposed amending the Constitution to rectify this problem. That can't be done. Article V of the Constitution, which spells out the amending power, forbids amendments that deprive a state ''of its equal suffrage in the Senate . . . without its consent.''

'Forum of the states'

I think the time has come to re-define the Senate as ''the forum of the states,'' as it likes to think of itself. Now more than ever. If the federal government is going to give power back to the states, in the name of federalism, those states should be real political entities, real federal subdivisions, truly equal partners in the Union.

It's not just off-the-wall newspaper scribblers like me who are thinking and talking this way. Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan of New York said at the end of the year, ''Sometime in the next century, the United States is going to have to address the question of apportionment in the Senate.''

Can it, given the obstacle of Article V? Well, states could just give consent to be deprived. But they're not going to. People in states like Wyoming and North Dakota aren't that dumb. That leaves, as best I can figure it, the convening of a new Constitutional Convention and an entirely rewritten new and improved Constitution.

I have been saying for some time now that such is long overdue (and not just to deal with the Senate representation problem). I think the next convention, which I hope and expect would be dominated by delegates from large and middle-sized states, would just dictate to the small states a new formula -- take it or leave it. What are they doing to do? Refuse to join the new United States? Don't make me laugh. They get too much from Washington to ever give it up, even if they were significantly diminished in federal influence.

I would propose that, with true respect for the Founding Fathers, the new Constitution keep the ratio of the Original Intent: 10 to 1. A state with less than a tenth the population of the largest state would be represented by only one senator -- except that those states with less than one twentieth of the largest state's population wouldn't be represented at all. They would become territories. Or they could merge with each other or with larger states.

I would imagine the merger and acquisition business among states would be as competitive and healthy as that among big corporations. Bigger states would want to absorb little states in order to increase (if only by one) their representation in the House of Representatives, not to mention their tax base. Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey would all bid plenty for Delaware, with its corporate wealth.

Maybe some other way would be better, but as Senator Moynihan and an increasing number of critics of the present Senate say, something has to be done.

Theo Lippman Jr. considers himself a citizen of Delaware and Maryland.

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