RSS
Does the gun bill's failure prove the Senate is broken?
Because of the filibuster, small states are effectively given immense influence on big issues like gun control
President Obama called the results of the Senate gun vote "shameful."
President Obama called the results of the Senate gun vote "shameful." Win McNamee/Getty Images
B

ackground checks have overwhelming support from the American public: A Washington Post-ABC News poll last week found that 86 percent of people support a law "requiring background checks on people buying guns at gun shows or online."

The Senate, ostensibly, represents those same people. Yet the Toomey-Manchin bill regulating that exact issue failed in the Senate on Wednesday by a vote of 54-46. (It needed 60 votes to pass.) What's wrong with this picture?

The main problem is that small states are vastly overrepresented in the Senate. If you judge the vote by population, the Toomey-Manchin bill actually got a majority of the votes. Alec MacGillis of The New Republic breaks down the numbers and finds that "senators voting for the bill represented about 194 million people, while the senators voting against the bill represented about 118 million people," which is "getting close to a two-thirds majority in favor of the measure."

While the Constitution has always protected the interests of small states, the disparity has never been this big. Ezra Klein of The Washington Post points out just how much things have changed:

During the first Congress, Virginia, the largest state, was roughly 12 times the size of Delaware, which was, at the time, the smallest state. Today, California is 66 times the size of Wyoming. That makes the Senate five times less proportionate today than it was at the founding. [Washington Post]

Of course, the effects of the Great Compromise wouldn't be so, well, great, if it weren't so easy to filibuster bills. "Everything needs 60 votes today. This is supposed to be a majority body," Sen. Dianne Feinstein complained after the bill failed, according to The Huffington Post.

Thanks to the filibuster, it takes the representatives of only a small portion of America to dictate policy on issues like gun control, argues The Atlantic's Philip Bump:

The Senate's failure to end a filibuster of stronger gun legislation yesterday prompted the president to lash out against the 'continued distortion of Senate rules' that allows 41 senators to block the will of their 59 counterparts. The problem is even more stark when you consider the population those senators could represent: Just over ten percent of Americans can block any federal legislation from moving forward. That's fewer people than live in the state of California alone. [The Atlantic]

If you live in Wyoming, you are probably pretty happy with how the system works, especially since, according to The New York Times, small states receive far more federal aid per capita than large ones. The best chance that states like California and New York have for changing the dynamic of the Senate is through filibuster reform — something that Sen. Harry Reid has pushed for in the past

Keith Wagstaff is a staff writer at TheWeek.com covering politics and current events. He has previously written for such publications as TIME, Details, VICE, and the Village Voice.

EDITORS' PICKS

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week