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Blame the Constitution

Susan Estrich on

The blame game around the Senate's failure to pass global warming legislation is in full swing. The obvious target is West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, with his one-man veto power over the Democratic Party. But he's not the only one. There's Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader who can't corral his troops, and of course President Joe Biden, who is supposed to be the master of the Senate. And that's just on the Democratic side. How the Republican Party escapes responsibility for environmental disaster I don't know. Between the Supreme Court decapitating the Environmental Protection Agency on the last day of the term and the utter failure of bipartisan reform, the party will ultimately have a great deal of explaining to do.

What makes our system's paralysis on environmental reform particularly frustrating is that this is a majority issue. Environmentalists point out, rightly, that a majority of voters consistently support key Biden initiatives to improve energy efficiency, incentivize clean energy production and make electric vehicles more affordable. According to research by Data for Progress, a pro-reform group, almost two-thirds of voters think we should be investing in cleaner and more reliable sources of energy rather than ramp up our production of fossil fuels and our importing of foreign energy.

As Europe sizzles, as parts of our own country face scorching heat and dangerous fires, we do nothing. But who is "we"?

I'm all for blaming "all of the above," but it won't solve the problem. The problem is the Constitution. Why does one man -- one Joe Manchin -- have the power that he does, the power to paralyze democracy coast to coast? Very simply, because our Founding Fathers, in yet another compromise of which there were many, gave small states equal representation in the newly created United States Senate. One senator from West Virginia has the same power as one senator from California; a voter in West Virginia thus has many, many times the power that one in California does. One-person-one-vote, enshrined by the United States Supreme Court as the constitutional standard for representative government, simply does not apply to the United States Senate.

You can explain it as yet another instance of the compromises that form the basis of the Constitution, and that is how it is generally taught. But it is only partly true. It is also because at least some of our founders feared unfettered democracy and worried about tyranny of the majority. In creating an intentionally unrepresentative body, they erected one more check on the power of the new federal government. In the Senate, some say, they created a body where good ideas, supported by a progressive majority, go to die. And they do. Abortion rights legislation has no chance in the Senate, even though it passed in the House and Roe v. Wade is supported by a majority of Americans. It remains to be seen what will happen to the House's bipartisan support of gay and interracial marriage, again popular initiatives opposed by many Republicans.

 

Recognizing that the Constitution empowers a Joe Manchin is only the beginning of the inquiry. The real question is how a Joe Manchin should represent his constituents. Yes, they are all citizens of West Virginia, a state that is classically dependent on coal production. But the thing about the environment that is so stunning is how irrelevant are the lines we humans have drawn -- lines between states, lines between countries. Recognizing this, the question for a Joe Manchin should not just be what is best for West Virginia; it should be what is best as well for our country and our planet. Those are not only interests we share but interests that the threat of global warming makes indivisible. They should be equally indivisible for other Republican senators who see their constituents narrowly only as state residents, and not -- as they are -- as citizens of this planet with greater responsibilities.

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