Jesse Helms v. Carol Moseley-Braun
The Case for Modernizing an Outdated Institution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 stubbornly static.

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 gubernatorial races.

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 black.

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.