In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Rural senators’ clout mis-represents America

We don’t count for much down here in Florida. Not in this particular democracy.

Not like the someone from the sparse reaches of rural America. When it comes to settling the great national issues of the day, the opinion of a cowpoke from Wyoming or a roughneck from North Dakota carries considerably more weight than some no-account from Florida.

Consider the two dominant propositions kicking around the U.S. Senate this week. Polls may indicate that somewhere close to 90 percent of Americans favor expanded background checks with firearm sales. But the architects of a compromise proposal in the Senate indicated this week that they needed to include a rural exemption — no checks for gun sales more than 100 miles from the nearest federally licensed firearm dealers.

It was a sweetener, added to entice U.S. senators who received fewer votes their last election than the Miami-Dade mayor or the Broward sheriff.

Even that wasn’t enough. The background check measure received only 54 votes in a Senate roll call Wednesday afternoon — a majority, but not the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. Once again, senators representing less than a third of the national population were able to ignore all those awful images from Newtown and thwart legislation that looked a hell of a lot like the national will.

Meanwhile, another rural enticement was added to the immigration compromise percolating through the Senate. Farm workers would be given a special five-year path to citizenship, as opposed to the 10-year deal for other illegal immigrants. Another amendment would create a special “blue card” system, exclusively for farm workers. Because with the distorted distribution of political power in the U.S. Senate, a Mexican farm worker in Mississippi has more worth than a Haitian roofer in South Florida.

Such stuff comes out of the grotesque apportionment that makes up the Senate, where the principle of one-man, one-vote has no standing. You would need to combine the populations of 17 of the nation’s least populous states to reach the equivalent of Florida’s 19 million residents. Those states have 34 votes in the U.S. Senate. Florida has two.

Of course, we’re better off than Californians, who have the same Senate representation as Wyoming with 66 times the cowboy state’s population.

Rural empowerment was enshrined in the Constitution back in 1787 despite the protestations of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. “It has been said that if the smaller states renounce their equality, they renounce at the same time their liberty,” Hamilton argued at the Constitutional Convention. “The truth is it is a contest for power, not for liberty. Will the men composing the small states be less free than those composing the larger?”

Well, the answer has become plenty clear in 2013. It was all about power. Over the years, the undemocratic make-up of the Senate gave disproportionate power to slave states (Robert Dahl, the famed Yale political scientist, noted that House of Representatives passed eight antislavery measures between 1800 and 1860 but all of them faltered in the Senate), then allowed segregation and its attendant wrongs to fester through the 1960s.

Disproportionate power has led to disproportionate disbursements of federal money — and this bizarre scenario in which residents of the rural south and west complain bitterly about recipients of federal handouts, about those imagined urban welfare queens, those moochers, while (with a few exceptions like Texas and Nevada) their own states collect more than they contribute to the federal treasury.

Rural states enrich themselves running cattle on federal rangeland, cutting timber in national forests or collecting federal farm subsidies and crop guarantees. In the past decade, they scarfed up more, per capita, in Homeland Security grants than states facing actual threats, like New York. As if al Qaeda had sworn jihad against Montana cows.

And it was the same scenario with federal stimulus money. The New York Times analyzed the distribution of the stimulus cash and found that the smaller states made out like bandits. Much of the money was flowing to same states whose political leaders complained so fervently about the stimulus programs.

Surely the founding fathers didn’t anticipate a situation in which workers abandon rural America and head to urban job centers even as rural America accrues more political clout. The voters migrate in one direction, the power and money flows the other.

So now a majority of Americans can only watch as rural gun absolutists ignore the firearm slaughter suffered in urban America and beat down even the most tepid gun measures, like the vote Wednesday killing background checks. They explain their opposition with this weird fantasy insurrectionist argument — they must hold on to their assault weapons, lest the federal government come after them.

It makes a tiresome sound, coming from folks who’ve got far more influence in that same federal government than residents of New York or California or Illinois. Their disproportionate power was on display Wednesday in the Senate, where some gun nut from Wyoming has 17 times more clout than a no-account from Florida.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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