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The Problem of the Small State Senator
Small states like North Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming with three percent of the population can determine what happens in health care for everyone else in the country.

In the ongoing red state/blue state, small state/big state public opinion tussle, the small states have been on the losing end lately, with small state Senators having huge influence on two major pieces of legislation, influence that is either significantly weakening, and even threatening to kill, those bills. That leaves plenty of people wondering how it is that a handful of senators who represent a tiny fraction of the nation's population get to decide for all of us. But I think the real question needs to be whether that tiny fraction of the nation's population is really being represented, and if not, what are they going to do about it.

Wyoming's Senators are starting to talk tough on killing cap-and-trade legislation recently passed in the House of Representatives. That'll mean Mike Enzi will have to take some time out of his schedule killing healthcare reform, which he has been pursuing mightily for months, along with colleagues from North Dakota, New Mexico, Iowa, Maine, and of course Max Baucus from Montana. A handful of Senators, representing less than three percent of the nation's total population, have the ability to obstruct must-pass legislation that the rest of the nation is clamoring for. That is, unless another small state Senator, Harry Reid, decides to bypass them.

The nation's founders intended the Senate to be the deliberative body, the careful body that would provide the check on the unruly mob that the House would likely become on the one hand, and the potential tyrant the executive might become on the other. What we ended up with is the least democratic body in our republic. It means that, as Nate Silver points out, "A voter in Wyoming -- population 533,000 -- has about 70 times more ability to influence the Senate's direction than one in California -- population 36.8 million."

That means that cap-and-trade legislation that could achieve a 17 percent carbon reduction for a cost of about $7 per household per month, $83 per year, could end up totally eviscerated in the Senate, keeping the United States on track as an unrepentant world polluter, using the convenient excuse of, "yeah, well, China is worse."

"There's nothing good about it," said U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo. "I'm going to do everything to make sure it doesn't pass."

U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., said the bill is "the biggest hidden tax in America."

"It's a Ponzi scheme because we're just going to print certificates for CO2 and not take care of any CO2," Enzi said. "It's just another way to make money."

Note that these remarks were made before the industry trade group, the Petroleum Association of Wyoming. Note also that Mike Enzi is the number one recipient of PAC money in terms of percentage in the Senate since 2003. Interestingly, the bill is extremely friendly to coal, making one wonder what Senators Enzi and Barrasso would say if they were speaking before a coal mining association. It's a deeply flawed bill that can be opposed on many levelsóbecause it doesn't go far enough fast enough, and because it favors certain industries, like coal, where lawmakers from coal producing states again had undo influence in the committee process.

Which brings us back to the small state conundrum. There is something fundamentally wrong about senators who represent less than three percent of the nation's population deciding the fate of the other 97 percent. And there's a problem with a senator from a state with an experience that is so completely unlike the experience of the rest of the nation. That's demonstrated most clearly in this debate by Kent Conrad's fixation on regional co-ops. In his experience, a co-op brought electrification to his parents or grandparents. It helps the dairy farmers secure fair prices for their product. But even in North Dakota, are a plucky bunch of folks going to organize their doctors and hospitals to strike out in a new organization, breaking the stranglehold Blue Cross/Blue Shield has on the state, which holds 91% of the market?

Letting Max Baucus Kent Conrad limit the health care choices for the entire nation based on their experience in North Dakota and Montana is as irrational as it would be to have Chuck Schumer set all of the gun control policy for the entire nation, based on his experiences in New York.

That's on the merits of debate alone. When you factor in the money part of the equation, it gets more disturbing. As many Congress watchers have pointed out, most recently Peter Drier in a column reprinted at New West, "Health-related companies and their employees gave Baucusís political committees nearly $1.5 million in 2007 and 2008, when he began holding hearings and making preparations for this yearís reform debate." These small state Senators pull in inordinate amounts of money from corporate donors and PACs, in part because they have a small individual donor base in their home states--fewer people, fewer individual donations.

More corporate donations, higher likelihood of making policy in the interest of the corporation? It's just common sense. That's where the major problem for all Americans, particularly small state residents, comes in to play. For all of the outsized clout these Senators might have, is it in these states long-term interest to have their Senators working on the behest of corporations in the short term.

Consider Wyoming, and Enzi's and Barrasso's work to represent the petroleum and natural gas folks. Yes, Wyoming is booming now because of those extractive industries, with the high paying jobs and the royalties they bring in. What has it also brought, though? Take Sublette county, ground zero for industry. The levels of ozone in the air in the county have measured higher than Los Angeles's, with all the subsequent health problems that entails. The influx of transient oil and gas workers has created some serious social upheaval in towns like Pinedale. The groundwater has been poisoned, killing off or forcing out the area's famed pronghorn antelope herds, and causing losses for livestock owners.

Wyoming has had plenty of booms and busts in its past, in large part because of the hold extractive industries have on the state's economy, and the hold extractive industries have on the reelection prospects of the state's federal elected officials. Think about what energy legislation could mean for Wyoming in the long term, if its federal policy-makers were thinking in those terms. Wyoming potentially has it all in alternative energy resources--wind, solar, and geothermal all readily available and exploitable. Wyoming could become a key player in building a more sustainable path to economic growth not only for itself, but for the nation in creating sustainable, smart, energy production. Which the Petroleum Association of Wyoming is going to fight tooth and nail, with Enzi and Barrasso carrying their banner, and taking their PAC donations.

The same dynamic is playing out in the healthcare reform debate, where Senators from Montana, Iowa, and North Dakota, are determining the fate of us all. It's not that residents of those state don't deserve representation. Residents of small states are as equal as Americans as Californians or Floridians or New Yorkers. There's a tendency among pundits when pointing out this small state problem to be dismissive of the states themselves, the fly-over country, the states who are a tax-drain on the rest of the country. It can smack of coastal elitism. And it ignores how much we are all in this together.

But in setting up that dynamic, the lack of representation small state residents receive is rarely considered by the critics. More unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be considered by the Senators in question, either. Let's look at the state of healthcare access in some of these states. In North Dakota, 11 percent of the population is uninsured; in Montana 16 percent; in Iowa, it's 10 percent.

Add to that, look at the monopolies the insurance companies--majority donors to these same Senators, have in their states. Blue Cross/Blue Shield covers 75 percent of insured Montanans, and 70 percent of insured residents of Wyoming. Wellmark covers 71 percent of insured Iowans. Hardly a good example of free-market enterprise and competition, something these conservative Senators are quick to say they're trying to uphold.

The percentages of uninsured in the small states is on par with the big ones. We're all suffering. In New York, it's 14 percent; in Florida, a whopping 21 percent. These are crises in which we all share, unfortunately, including the three percent of the population being represented by the Senators who are trying to decide for all of us. The climate crisis isn't as immediate as the healthcare crisis, or at least not as pressing on individual daily lives. But it's just as critical to the fate of the nation in the long term. And just as likely to be decided by corporations, many of the multi-nationals, like Halliburton which has a big chunk of the contracts in Wyoming. The short-term boom and bust mentality that maximizes corporate profits--where in oil and gas or in health insurance--is at work again in these current votes.

It's at work again in influencing Max Baucus and Mike Enzi and Chuck Grassley and Kent Conrad and John Barrasso. They're helping out their friends in industry, forgetting that while their campaign coffers might have been filled by those lobbyists, they owe their votes to the actual people who sent them to DC. This isn't a partisan thing, and it isn't a regional thing. But the small state residents who sent these folks back to Washington to represent their best interests are getting the short end of the stick, yet again.

Source: MCJoan at the Daily Kos


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Date Added: 8/24/2009 Date Revised: 8/24/2009

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