The other day, Alexi Giannoulias faced a question from a voter who didn’t just want to change the way the Senate does business -- he wanted to change the way the Senate is elected.
The man believed those little states -- Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota -- don’t deserve two whole senators. They should all just share one senator. It’s undemocratic for so few people to have so much power.
“If elected to the United States Senate, with your heritage in the cradle of democracy, I think you believe like all of us in democracy and the essence of one-man, one-vote,” the man said to Giannoulias at this week’s 49th Ward Democratic Party meeting. “But when we look at the U.S. Senate, it looks like a dysfunctional, undemocratic body with filibusters requiring super-majorities to pass things, with North and South Dakota having more senators than Illinois, even though we outnumber them 12-to-1. What will you do as a senator, to bring democratic, small-d reform to the United States Senate? Will you fight against the filibuster, will you seek reapportionment on a one-man, one-vote basis?”
Giannoulias had a sound bite prepared for that. Candidates usually do.
“I agree with you that the filibuster today goes against the very spirit of what it was meant to be,” he said. “I think we need to change things around a little bit. You shouldn’t just be able to threaten a filibuster, you should have to stand up and do it.”
The crowd applauded. They agreed that a filibuster should be a sweaty, exhausting, hoarse performance, like James Stewart’s in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
“There are some proposals out there to do it in a smarter way,” Giannoulias continued. “Maybe decrease the number of senators it takes [to break] a filibuster, maybe make it sort of a graduated scale as days pass, that number decreases. I agree with you the process has become a complete mess, which is why we need some fresh leadership in the U.S. Senate.”
That didn’t satisfy the questioner, who was still preoccupied with the outsized power the Dakotas wield over the nation’s destiny.
“The whole principle of a supermajority is undemocratic,” the man said. “The whole principle of North and South Dakota having more senators than Illinois, they outvote us 4-2.”
“That might be a little bit of a challenge, with a constitutional amendment,” Ald. Joe Moore said helpfully.
“Are you willing to join that reform movement, to reapportion the United States Senate on the basis of population?”
“I’m not prepared to do that yet,” Giannoulias said.
Giannoulias wants to reform the Senate. But he doesn’t want to revolutionize it.