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What If - Senators Votes Were Related To Special Interest Contributions?

piggiesflyingWe like to play “What If” now and again. We’re on the eve of an extremely important vote for a US Senator for Massachusetts to replace Senator Edward Kennedy, a champion of health care reforms throughout his political career. If the seat goes to the Republicans the Democrats will lose their 60:40 majority, putting the outcome of the health reform debate in jeopardy. Even if it stays with the Democratic Party, the outcome is still by no means certain, as we saw before Christmas.

The Republicans really weren’t a big issue, as they were almost all against health reform, though the Democrats tried hard to woo Olympia Snow over to their side. Joe Liebermann (I-CT, a.k.a. “the Senator from Aetna”) threatened to vote against the bill, as did Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE), who held out (i.e. blackmailed his fellow Democrats) for free Medicaid forever for his State. In the end the bill got the requisite 60 votes. Although it’s far from ideal, as we pointed out in yesterday’s article, it is, at least a starting point.

The problem – a warped democracy
The problem is that we’re too democratic in our allocation of votes to the clowns who masquerade as representatives of their constituents. We let every one of them cast one vote and make it worse by insisting that at least 60 votes be cast in favor of a bill. Hang on! That’s not actually democracy, is it? We’re willing to let 41 over-ride the wishes and convictions of 59? Even though every one of those 41 are almost certainly in the pockets of special interests?

A potential solution
I think we’d all agree that on many issues, especially ones where money isn’t involved, it would be unfair to have populous states impose their wishes on less populous ones, or rich ones on poor ones. That’s an important principle in making any kind of federation work. So allocating votes according to the size, population or wealth of a state isn’t going to fly.

However, let’s look at the problem – undue monetary influence by powerful interests, in the recent case, that of the health sector. What if we were to look at the total amount of the contributions by the interests related to a bill and allocate each Senator a number of votes that is inversely proportional to the amount of money they’ve received?

In this case, using the figures available in mid-2008, the total health sector contribution to Senators was $126,443,522. If we look at the percentage of that figure that each Senator had received we see Sen. Roland Burris (D-IL) with the lowest, under 0.01% at $3,750, and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) with the highest, with roughly 7.1%. Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) comes in second highest, at 6.6%. However, both of them have been in the Senate a long time, so their totals are higher.

Let’s now allocate 7 votes to the Senators with the lowest percentage contributions and 0 to those with the highest. We can calculate this using the formula 7-(100 * Individual_contribution / Total_contribution). Senator Burris and 63 others get a full 7 votes! McCain and Kerry get 0 and 1 votes, respectively1. The others get between 4 and 6.

The result of weighted voting
This formula dramatically changes the voting landscape. For a start, there are a total of 630 votes to be cast, rather than the 100 ordinarily. The actual number would vary according to the special interest contribution profile. If we stay with a democratic mechanism, requiring over 50% to win, the health reformers would have needed 316 votes to win. The split between the Democrats, Republicans and Independents would be 361, 257 and 12, i.e. So, the Democrats could easily have won!

That seems fair, as there are more of them than their opponents. It’s also worth noting that the Democratic Party Senators had each received a lower average contribution, $1.15 million each, as against the $1.35M for the Independents and $1.48 million for the Republicans. So, overall, they were a little less in the pockets of the health sector than the others. Even better, they wouldn’t have needed to have bothered with Senators Liebermann, Nelson, Woods and other opponents of the bill, as they would still have been able to pass it.

Could it work?
Unfortunately, as with any reasonable idea, the warts soon appear to spoil the picture. The 60% rule came about as a complex series of changes designed to prevent filibustering, a practice that extends a debate until the allocated time runs out, so it would be hard to change it, let alone adopt a proportional system. The split in the health care reform debate would have been 57%, 41% and 2%, making the Democrats even more dependent on the Independents and Republicans if the 60% rule still applied.

Maybe it would be better to just give every Senator 20 minutes of speaking time per bill, to use in whatever proportions they choose, down to a single minute. That would eliminate filibustering, so a 51% majority could pass a bill. That would spoil all of the fun though, wouldn’t it? After all, who wants a democracy anyway? We clearly don’t have a real one one now.

 1  I also worked the figures with 8 votes for the least beholden and 1 vote for the most, but it didn’t significantly affect the outcome in this case. It might be fairer in general though, ensuring that everyone gets at least one vote.

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