Any change to the Senate’s composition, even short of abolition, would require at least an amendment to the Constitution. Such an amendment would need the buy-in of numerous smaller states whose interests are well served by the current structure of the Senate.
But the problems don’t stop there. There is a little-discussed provision at the end of Article V of the Constitution that reads “no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.” The exact meaning is debatable. Squire says questions over the provision would almost certainly go to the Supreme Court if Senate abolition ever got that far, though he believes that “everything in the Constitution is available to be amended” through the enumerated Article V processes, despite some, such as the American Enterprise Institute’s Norman Ornstein, arguing that the clause is a “fail-safe” against amendment. (Ornstein is a contributing editor for The Atlantic.)
Lee Drutman of New America, an expert on electoral reform, dismissed calls to abolish the Senate as essentially impractical, a view largely shared by other scholars. “It’s a fun thing to complain about on Twitter, but let’s get serious,” he says.
While supporters of Senate abolition argue that eliminating the upper house would increase democratic accountability, questions about the impact on the separation of powers remain. Beyer, the Virginia congressman, believes the Senate serves as a check on the tyranny of the majority. Even those who wish to do away with the chamber tend to acknowledge that pure majority rule could open the floodgates to those who support potentially popular attacks on the rights and liberties of minority groups, an issue discussed at length in The Atlantic by Conor Friedersdorf in August.
Senate abolition, no matter its support among left-wing groups, remains a remote prospect in the near term. Constitutional and political hurdles are massive, and despite gaining traction among many in the left-wing commentariat, popular support would likely be more elusive. However, stopgap measures—subdividing large states, for instance, or adding U.S. territories and the District of Columbia to the union—may be more viable and could address some Senate critics’ most immediate concerns.
But calls for radical reform can be useful in themselves. Issues of voting rights and disproportionality generally gain traction when attention is turned toward issues like the relative representativeness of the Senate. Electoral change—including measures to combat voter suppression and gerrymandering, or even more fundamental changes like instituting a proportional voting system for House elections—may become more palatable to the electorate at large as massive systemic changes like Senate abolition are discussed. “It’s always good to have a John the Baptist out there, painting a picture of what could be, but people change their minds relatively slowly,” Beyer says.
But in the near term, Democrats may not need John the Baptist—what they need may be Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and time. To rearrange electoral geography, American history would suggest that time is the most critical.