Here’s a way to dramatize how extreme the bias is. Compare the House elections of 2010 and 2020. In 2010, the Republicans won 51.7 percent of all votes cast; in 2020, the Democrats won 51.5 percent—almost exactly the same proportion. But in 2010, the Republican 51.7 percent converted into 242 seats, a decisive majority. In 2020, the Democratic 51.5 percent converted into 222 seats, a narrow margin.
Michael Klarman: The Democrats’ last chance to save democracy
Analysis of district-level voting patterns suggests that Republicans enjoy an inbuilt 2.1 percentage-point advantage in contests for the House majority. Joe Biden won the national vote by 4.6 points in 2020. He won the median House seat, Illinois’s Fourteenth Congressional District, by 2.5 points. The Republican advantage in the Senate is, of course, even more extreme. Not since the mid-1990s have Republican senators represented a majority of American voters. The 50 Democratic senators elected in 2020 represent nearly 42 million more Americans than the 50 Republicans.
Shifting power from an overmighty presidency to a Congress that overindulges reactionary minorities will do democracy no good. The post-Watergate reformers recognized that logic, and joined their limits on the presidency to an attempted modernization of Congress. They well remembered the old joke that the presidential Democratic Party was run by the country’s most progressive-minded people; the congressional Democratic Party, by the country’s most backward-looking.
So as they restrained the presidency, they also modernized Congress. They opened committee proceedings to the public. They set new limits on the formerly almost absolute power of committee chairs. They tightened congressional ethics rules.
In the mid-1970s, the Senate lowered the number of votes necessary to overcome a filibuster from 67 to 60.
Not all of these reforms worked as intended. Some backfired, such as the change to the filibuster rules. Previously, filibusters had been unusual, and the Senate generally operated by majority rule. Once the threshold was lowered to 60, however, filibusters gradually became the norm.
But successful or not, the reformers of the 1970s understood the architecture of American democracy. Power flowed from Congress to the presidency precisely because the presidency was the most accountable branch of the federal government. If the flow was to be reversed, Congress needed to be democratized. This same problem presents itself with even greater force in the 2020s.
In an important new book, Kill Switch, Adam Jentleson offers a harrowing portrait of how anti-majoritarian dysfunction has paralyzed the U.S. Senate. Jentleson formerly worked as an aide to Senator Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic leader from 2005 to 2017, so he writes with an insider’s knowledge. The filibuster is one target of Jentleson’s critique, but not the only one. He is also scathing about the concentration of power in the hands of Senate leadership—a trend to which, as Jentleson acknowledges, Reid contributed more than a little.