Putting the Senate Under Scrutiny

Post piece ably highlights the oddity of the upper house

Over the weekend, Alec MacGillis of The Washington Post had an excellent article on the peculiar nature of the U.S. Senate, and the consequences of its dramatic overrepresentation of low-population states on policy-making. Readers should really take a look at the whole thing, but here’s one of the key points:

Why, for example, have even Democratic senators been resistant on health-care reform? It might be because so many of the key players represent so few of the voters who carried Obama to victory — and so few of the nation’s uninsured. The Senate Finance Committee’s “Gang of Six” that is drafting health-care legislation that may shape the final deal — without a public insurance option — represents six states that are among the least populous in the country: Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, Maine, New Mexico and Iowa.

Between them, those six states hold 8.4 million people — less than New Jersey — and represent 3 percent of the U.S. population. North Dakota and Wyoming each have fewer than 80,000 uninsured people, in a country where about 47 million lack insurance. In the House, those six states have 13 seats out of 435, 3 percent of the whole. In the Senate, those six members are crafting what may well be the blueprint for reform.

This sort of explanation of important underlying structural factors is exactly what newspapers should be doing more of—and its usual absence is one of the reasons many readers looking for informed analysis have turned to blogs instead. There’s not much “news” in this piece. But in terms of providing knowledge that helps readers understand why the debate in Congress is playing out the way it is, the story delivers more than most of the front-page articles detailing the latest wrangling on Capitol Hill.

For all its virtues, there is at least one nit to pick with the story. At one point, MacGillis writes:

Not all small states are GOP strongholds. (Hello, Vermont, Delaware and Rhode Island.) And it’s true that Obama won the 2008 nomination thanks in part to racking up caucus victories in states such as Idaho and Wyoming.

The line about Vermont, Delaware, and Rhode Island is fair enough, even if what it really indicates is that the divide is really about regions, rather than population. (That is, a geographically small, low-population state in the Northeast is more like a big Northeastern state than a geographically large, low-population state out West.) The sentence about Idaho and Wyoming, however, seems to have little relationship to the rest of the story—in the caucuses, after all, Obama was competing only against other Democrats. The results of primary elections or caucuses provide little insight into the political character of state’s general population, or the expected behavior of its elected officials.

But that’s a small point compared to the story’s strengths. Let’s hope we see more like this from MacGillis, and the Post, going forward.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.