Jesse Helms v. Carol
The Case for Modernizing an Outdated Institution
By Rob Richie and Steven Hill
In Tony Blair's Britain, constitutional overhaul is in the
process of dismantling the hereditary and aristocratic House of
Lords. But our own upper house -- the U.S. Senate -- remains
No question, the Senate is a unique institution. No other
well-established democracy has an upper house with equal power to enact
legislation as its lower house. Its six-year term of office is longer
than that of any state legislature. It is the only legislative body in
the nation -- at any level -- whose members represent geographic areas
instead of equal numbers of people; California has as many senators as
Wyoming despite having more than 60 times its population.
The Senate also stands out for another reason. If it were a private
club, a member would likely be forced to resign before running for
office or face charges of belonging to an exclusive fraternity. Only
nine women and not a single black or Latino is at the legislative table
when the Senate undertakes such solemn constitutional duties as debating
treaties, declaring war, weighing the guilt of an impeached president
and approving nominations to the Supreme Court.
To put it in perspective, if the Senate were chosen by lottery among
all Americans, a quarter of senators likely would be black or Latino,
and more than half would be women.
But, instead, two senators are elected from each state in a
winner-take-all vote. From the 49 states with white majorities, 97
senators are white, and one is Native American. Voters in Hawaii, our
only non-white majority state, have elected two Japanese American
senators. Women generally lose out, just as they do in most
Many rebel against the idea of race or gender being a factor in
determining representation. But the stark reality is that they already
are a factor -- the strong correlation in particular between race and
representation in the Senate and most other American legislative bodies
is no accident.
Others argue that black and Latino voters can be influential even
when in the minority. Most blacks in Mississippi, where blacks comprise
a third of the population, certainly would disagree -- their two
senators, Thad Cochran and majority leader Trent Lott, rarely vote with
black House members on contested legislation.
In fact, Cochran and Lott recently joined a Senate majority in
rejecting the nomination of Judge Ronnie White to the federal judiciary.
White, a member of the Missouri Supreme Court, was the first judicial
nominee defeated on the Senate floor in more than a decade. He also is
Now Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) is creating another test tinged with
racial overtones. A year ago, he served with Carol Moseley-Braun, who
represented Illinois for one term before a narrow defeat in her
re-election bid last November. Moseley-Braun also was the first black
senator since the 1970s and the first-ever black woman Senator.
After she was nominated to be ambassador to New Zealand, Sen. Helms
announced that he would stop her nomination. If he succeeds,
Moseley-Braun will be the first former senator to have an ambassadorial
nomination rejected since 1835.
A major reason for Helms' opposition to Moseley-Braun is that in
1993, she led the opposition to Helms' proposal to renew the United
Daughters of the Confederacy's design patent on an insignia featuring
the original flag of the Confederacy.
After Moseley-Braun argued in an impassioned speech that the
confederate flag was an emblem of slavery, the Senate, which had earlier
approved the patent, reversed itself and voted 75 to 25 to reject it.
Would Judge White's nomination have been successful or would
Moseley-Braun's nomination survive if there were black senators? Maybe
yes, maybe no -- but it would be a different debate, with senators
having to justify their actions more clearly, just as with their 1993
vote on the confederate flag.
Looking to the future, the question becomes whether the Senate will
enter the 20th century sometime during the 21st. Proposed solutions that
can be done within the Constitution include breaking large states into a
series of smaller states, each of which would elect two senators, and
having each senator represent one-half a state in one of two districts.
Short of dramatic reform, the first step is recognizing the Senate's
exclusive nature as uncomfortably like the House of Lords and more
aggressively recruiting viable minority candidates. Perhaps there will
be a defining moment similar to how the Clarence Thomas / Anita Hill
controversy helped trigger the "Year of the Woman" in 1992 --
and an increase in the number of women senators from two to seven.
Carol Moseley-Braun was one of the beneficiaries of that surge of
support for women. Now she faces rejection by her former colleagues.
Maybe, just maybe, that rejection will send a message to Americans that
the U.S. Senate is one country club they have the power to change.
Rob Richie is executive director of The Center for Voting and
Democracy and Steven Hill is the Center's west coast director. They are
co-authors of "Reflecting All of Us" (Beacon Press
1999). write to: PO Box 60037, Washington, DC 20039.