Why We Have a Senate

The passing of Senator Robert Byrd brings with it the acknowledgment of the federal largesse he brought to the state of West Virginia. From Senator Byrd, we heard no complaints about federal earmarks or redistribution of wealth. As the Times relays, Senator Byrd used his position in the Senate to aid the lives of West Virginians, improving the infrastructure and institutions of his state. To do this, he was an unapologetic practitioner of wealth redistribution. In 2004, for every dollar West Virginians spent in federal taxes, the state received $1.83 in federal funds (see the Tax Foundation Report here). Not a bad deal for West Virginia, and one that is only possible because other states receive less than they pay. Because political opposition to the idea of wealth redistribution is primarily aimed at the conferral of benefits on individuals, we do not often hear much complaining about the redistribution of federal funds at the state level (which may or may not trickle directly down to individuals). For a Senator whose early career was marked by claims of states rights, Senator Byrd became comfortable not only with Civil Rights legislation, but with the development of a strong federal role in creating a more equitable distribution of national benefits. Some states have more to offer the nation than others, and in order to counteract the effects of maldistribution, powerful Senators such as Robert Byrd champion the interests of the state they represent.

I wonder how much Senator Byrd’s achievements on behalf of West Virginia serve as a partial response to Sanford Levinson’s provocative and powerful argument that the Senate is a anti-democratic body whose time is passed. For all the bridges to nowhere powerful Senators have funded for their states, and from which their Governors have benefited, the Senate, which begins as an institution tethered to preserving the interests of their state legislatures, becomes in part an institution committed not only to locality but to the very idea of one nation indivisible. No doubt, as Levinson drives home, there is something deeply undemocratic about the Senate’s maldistribution of voter representation where California’s 36 million (who receive $0.79 on the dollar) get the same representation in the Senate as North Dakota’s 650,000 (who receive $1.73) or Alabam’s 4.7 million (who receive $1.71). The proof will be in the details, but it may be that the skewed distribution of democratic representation, may make possible a beneficial redistribution of wealth and resources that makes possible a more cohesive national unity. The Senate helps make relevant to Californians what happens in West Virginia or South Carolina. If any of this is plausible, then one irony is that the Senate does more to undermine the idea of “states rights” or “states autonomy” than it does to promote it, by demonstrating the political and practical interdependence of each state on the others. We tolerate the redistribution of wealth, aided greatly by the Senate’s equal representation of states who have less to offer the national body, because it is untenable that some have so much while others have so little. Senator Byrd undoubtedly improved the lives of West Virginians through his commitment to the practice of redistribution. And for this, we all benefit.

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