Opinion by Noe Lebanidze
Photo: New York State Senate Chamber
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A famous dissenting opinion by former US Supreme Court Associate Justice Louis Brandeis once described the condition of states in our system of government as “laboratories of democracy” (Brandeis 1932). By this, he meant that their autonomy allows them to implement innovative new policies—“novel social and economic experiments”—on a small scale (Brandeis 1932). In theory, this makes them the testing ground for what does and does not work in the policy world. It has always struck me as strange that this is completely untrue in one very important respect. Some important policies may have started on the state level, but if the states are true “laboratories” of democracy, then why are they all nearly identical to each other in terms of constitutional structure? If we look at the constitutional structure of the states, we will find they are not that innovative, especially when it comes to their legislative structure.
It is not just that nearly all states have a system with a strong, independent executive (a presidential system). No—an even more curious thing to question is why nearly all states are equipped with both a lower legislative body and a higher body or “Senate.” In other words, why are they all bicameral? The two virtually monolithic systems of legislative division are unicameral or bicameral. Unicameral means that you have a single legislative body, hence “uni,” while bicameral means you have two, hence “bi.” In most bicameral systems, both bodies are selected in different ways. For instance, in our system, one body (the US Senate) is composed of senators elected by the states, while the other is composed of representatives from more or less equally-populated districts. Most of the world is bicameral at first look, though one legislative body often has more influence than the other. In the United Kingdom, for example, the lower body (the House of Commons) is the real source of power with influence over everyday legislative activity, whereas the upper body (the House of Lords) cannot block legislation except in a small number of special circumstances. The same is roughly true of most bicameral systems, which have become less and less truly bicameral. (Longley 2022)
That said, it is a unique aspect of the United States that our states’ government structure in large part mirror the federal system. This is not the case, for example, in Canada, whose provinces are all unicameral while their national legislature is bicameral. Furthermore, the US Senate is typically justified as the arbiter of the interests of states. Unlike on a federal level, state senates are not composed of representatives from permanent districts as in the US Senate. There are no “states’’ to be represented within the states. Instead, state senators are elected from districts that are drawn in the same way as congressional electoral districts. In many states, term lengths do not even differ between members of the two legislative bodies. In New York and 11 other states, state senators serve for the same length (two years) as members of the equivalent lower body (Ballotpedia 2023). Permanent statewide constituencies and long(er) terms are the US Senate’s most distinguishing features. What use is having one without those?
One use of the senate is to prevent majoritarianism. Federalist Papers no. 63 lists “the propensity of all single and numerous assemblies to yield to the impulse of sudden and violent passions, and to be seduced by factious leaders into intemperate and pernicious resolutions” as a reason for having a senate (Madison 1788). This is part of a persistent fear among the framers that majoritarianism would lead to tyranny, hence the need for a divided legislature in order to make it harder for popular interests to fully capture government. Remember that the US Senate didn’t become popularly elected until the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment. This might plausibly explain why so many states were founded with bicameral legislatures. One state, Pennsylvania, even transitioned from being unicameral to bicameral in 1791 (Ries 2016). This fear of majoritarianism most likely factored into the decision by all states to adopt bicameralism.
Is the concern which motivated bicameralism still valid today? Probably not, and we do not need to look beyond our borders for proof of this. Nebraska abolished its senate in 1937 at the height of the Great Depression and has operated with a unicameral legislature since. It is hard to determine how this change affected Nebraska since little has been written about it. A 1952 article from the journal Western Political Quarterly found that the new system cut administration costs without increasing the degree of hastily-approved legislation or irresponsible spending (Shumate 1952). Not much has been written about Nebraska’s system, but that is a good thing for unicameralism. It is one more data point showing that the lack of a second legislative body does not lead to immediate ruin.
State senates exist today as phantom institutions. The standard justifications for bicameralism don’t apply on the state level and the theory which motivated their adoption has lost significant ground. Their greatest justification is that they do not cause too much trouble. Like a heavy laptop that we carry around in our backpack without ever using, bicameralism holds the state government back without anyone stopping to question its necessity. Following the model of Nebraska, New York should make the (admittedly) bold move of abolishing its senate. In addition to not being a slippery slope to tyranny, one can conclude three points for why it would improve governance in New York:
- It would reduce the state budget.
- It would make governance simpler.
- It would make it easier for citizens to engage in state politics.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the base pay for legislators in New York State in 2021 is $110,000 (NCSL 2021). Multiply this by 63, and the annual salary paid to state Senators is $6.93 million. While this might not look so significant, the total cost of running the state Senate is likely to be significantly higher given the large staff and budget apportioned to each senator.
The second point is perhaps best demonstrated by the recent history of the New York State Senate. Between 2012 and 2018, a handful of Democratic senators–known as the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC)—shared power over the state Senate with the Republican Caucus (Wang 2018). This was not because of their ideological profiles or the direct interests of their voters but because it granted individual members increased influence. While the IDC eventually disbanded, it is worth noting that, in a larger legislative body with more members and hence more interests to satisfy, organizing such a defection would have been more difficult to organize.
Third, abolishing the state Senate would make it easier for people to engage in local politics. We hear about declining voter turnout quite often, but the data shows that engagement in state politics is in even worse shape. A 2018 study by Johns Hopkins University found that only 20% of respondents could identify their state legislators (Rosen 2018). We could make it easier for citizens to become active by eliminating the state Senate. This would eliminate the need to scrutinize two separate candidates at the ballot while also making the process of policy advocacy easier for the average person. In a bicameral system, legislation needs support from both bodies to gain traction, whereas, in a unicameral system, it only needs support from one. For the average person with a full-time job and limited resources, decreasing the effort required to get attention from legislators is the obvious choice if we want to encourage genuine symbiosis between state legislators and their constituents.
This argument should not be taken as an attack on any current or former members of the New York State Senate or the integrity of their individual wills. Many of them, no doubt, are of great character and devote great amounts of time and effort to their jobs. It is a tragedy that this time and effort is wasted in an inefficient system. The best way to honor their public service is to maximize the utility of their service provided for the public.
Finally, one might counter that such a reform is unnecessary. While abolishing the New York State Senate would be a marginally good change in theory, it is not important enough that we should invest time and energy into pursuing it. The state is not on the route to disaster, and abolishing the New York State Senate will not change our state’s trajectory dramatically. This is, on balance, probably true. Still, there is symbolic importance in pursuing political reform. Continuity is an integral part of any durable political system, but so is experimentation. We can’t expect to organize ourselves according to the same institutions and systems forever. Political institutions are reflections of the conditions and theories that affected the people who created them. Yet these conditions and theories change, and we should give some thought to changing the systems which came out of them. If anything, it feels as if American society has become even less daring compared to previous generations. Take, for example, Rexford Tugwell, an economic advisor to FDR and former Governor of Puerto Rico, who advocated creating a fourth branch of dedicated economic planning and the abolition of states with less than 5% of the population (Tugwell 1974).
Luckily, we don’t need to alter the US Constitution to experiment with new democratic systems. We are blessed with our own state with which we can perform novel political experiments. Article XIX of the New York Constitution states that every twenty years, the electors of the state must face a referendum on whether or not to “revise the constitution and amend the same” (NY Const. art. XIX). The last time this was on the ballot was in 2017, so the next opportunity to abolish the New York Senate is in 2037. When the time comes, I’ll be voting yes.
Noe Lebanidze is a senior double-majoring in philosophy and history originally from Hastings-on-Hudson. His biggest interests are in political philosophy and the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Last semester he wrote a thesis on John Rawls’s The Law of Peoples as part of the Pell Honors Program. This semester he’s a member of the Student Association Congress. When he isn’t attending financial committee meetings, you can find him studying for the notary public exam or pretending to play tennis in his adopted hometown of Ossining, New York.
Brandeis, Louis in New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, 285 S. Ct. 262 (1932).
“Length of terms of state senators.” Ballotpedia. ballotpedia.org/Length_of_terms_of_state_senators.
Longley, Robert. 2022. “What Is a Bicameral Legislature and Why Does the U.S. Have One?” ThoughtCo, March 2. www.thoughtco.com/why-we-have-house-and-senate-3322313.
Madison, James. 1788. “Federalist No. 63.” Federalist Papers.
Ries, Linda. 2016. “Pennsylvania Charter of Privileges.” The Greater Philadelphia Encyclopedia. philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/essays/pennsylvania-charter-of-privileges/.
Rosen, Jill. 2018. “Americans don’t know much about state government, survey finds.” HUB, John Hopkins University, December 14. hub.jhu.edu/2018/12/14/americans-dont-understand-state-government/.
Shumate, Roger V. 1952. “The Nebraska Unicameral Legislature.” The Western Political Quarterly, 5(September): 504–512.
Tugwell, Rexford. 1974. The Emerging Constitution. New York, NY: Harper’s Magazine Press.
Wang, Vivian. 2018. “How 3 Little Letters (I.D.C.) Are Riling Up New York Progressives.” The New York Times, September 11. www.nytimes.com/2018/09/11/nyregion/independent-democratic-conference.html.
“2021 Legislator Compensation.” 2021. National Conference of State Legislatures, September. www.ncsl.org/about-state-legislatures/2021-legislator-compensation.
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