Casten Gives Moving Speech on Need to Reform Democracy by Expanding House and Senate and Changing Supreme Court’s Jurisdiction
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Casten Gives Moving Speech on Need to Reform Democracy by Expanding House and Senate and Changing Supreme Court’s Jurisdiction
Washington, D.C. (February 1st, 2023) - Last night, Congressman Sean Casten (IL-06) took to the House floor to introduce legislation to increase the size of the House and Senate, as well as restore the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction to better align with Article III of the US Constitution.
The package, named “A Common Sense Vision for American Democracy” would:
- Establish 12 at-large senators to be elected through a nationwide system of ranked choice voting
- Add approximately 138 additional Members of the House (if it had been implemented after the 2020 census)
- Change the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and create a 13-judge multi-circuit panel to hear cases where the United States or a federal agency is a party
Click here or on the image below to view the entire speech.
A full transcript of the speech can be found below:
Thank you Mr. Speaker. I am here today to introduce three bills to make our government work a little better. But before I get to those, I would put a question to all of us in this Chamber, the thousands who are sitting here tonight in the gallery, folks watching, but those of us who have the privilege to have this job.
Why are we here?
What is the reason we decided to get into this line of work?
There is a small number of us who, I don’t know, may go on to be President or some other office. There is a handful of us who get our viral clips on the local news. There is some larger number of us who actually get their name on a big bill that makes a difference, and we are remembered by our name: The Tafts and Hartleys and Sarbanes and Oxleys.
The truth is that most of us are going to be about as well-known to our successors as our predecessors are to us.
We are here. We are doing a job. We will be known for the office that we held. We will be remembered for the dignity with which we held that office but not for who we are as individuals. And that is okay, right?
One of my favorite pieces of advice I got when I got into this line of work was from President Obama, who said, This is not a sprint, this is a relay. And your job is to pass the baton to the next person in a little bit of a better position than you had it when you picked it up on the last leg.
Now everybody in this body has different policy views, different ideas of what a better position in that relay might look like. But I submit that we do have some universal goals that we all agree on or else we wouldn’t be in this line of work.
We all want a government that delivers the greatest good for the greatest number. We all want a government that upholds our founding promise of freedom and equality.
We all, I think, believe Abraham Lincoln’s admonition to us that a government of, by, and for the people should not perish from this Earth. And we all, also, I think agree that on those really hard questions, the beauty of the government that our Founders created, it is on the hard ones where we disagree the single best way to resolve those disputes is through a democratic process.
It ain’t always the best way, but we decided not to have kings. We have agreed not to resolve those through wars. We have agreed to resolve them through a democratic process.
I agree with Winston Churchill when he said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other ones that have been tried, but it is the best one that we’ve got.
I put those goals out there because I think they are universal. But if we are honest with ourselves, I’m not sure we are doing such a good job. When we have record wealth inequality, when we have record numbers of mass shootings, when we have surging levels of deaths of despair from the opioid crisis to suicide, it’s hard to say that we are doing the greatest good for the greatest number.
When we’ve got persistent male-female wage gaps, racial wealth gaps, steady numbers of Black men getting killed for minor traffic violations, it is hard to say we are doing a really good job at upholding a promise to freedom and equality.
When we look at what we do in this building, not just on our end here but the north and the south ends of the building, do we do what the people ask us to do, things that are overwhelmingly popular?
Campaign finance reform, getting rid of gerrymandering, holding ourselves to the same legal and ethical standards that we ask all American citizens to be held to.
We can’t get those bills sent to the President’s desk. Those things are rejected. We don’t even get them out of this building. That’s a question of whether we really are making sure that we have a government that is of, by, and for the people.
I know that you all face the same questions I get when I go home. People say: Why is it that people in this institution are failing to do things that are overwhelmingly popular?
When we see those little polls that say Congress has a 20 percent approval rating, that should be a red light that we got to fix things.
And, of course, the refusal of substantially all of one political party, the party of Lincoln, to condemn an attack on the U.S. Capitol that sought to overturn a free and fair election is not a commitment to preserve and abide by the wisdom of the majority.
Now, I can get depressing, and I am not trying to depress anyone. It can be a cause for hopelessness, but not for us, right? I mean, we got into this job to fix things.
Mr. Speaker, I know you got into this job to fix things, make things better, right? Seeing something that is broke is an opportunity to make it better. Maybe it is an opportunity for us to build something better and maybe people will remember our names.
But we got to get to work and move the baton forward to do that. If we are going to do that, we have to first acknowledge some unpleasant, if self-evident, truths.
First of all, we don’t like to say it around here often, but we should. Our Founders actually weren’t perfect. They weren’t Moses. They weren’t Jesus. They were fallible people just like us.
One of my favorite descriptions of the Constitutional Convention was Benjamin Franklin when he was asked about the process. And he said, When you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom— he should have said ‘‘and women’’ but it’s with the times—when you assemble them to get their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble all of their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views.
He was talking about the Constitutional Convention.
It sounds an awful lot like he is talking about all the people we work with every day, right? We all have our errors of opinion and our selfish views, and that is okay. Trust our Founders that they were not perfect and they were just as flawed as we all are.
The second thing we got to acknowledge is that our Founders didn’t actually think the Constitution was perfect. It is not this immutable stones’ path down the mountain.
This is Thomas Jefferson in September 1789, after the Constitution was ratified. He wrote to James Madison: Every Constitution—this is a little crazy, I’ll warn you.
Every Constitution, every law should naturally expire at the end of 19 years. It might be that every form of government is so perfectly contrived that the will of the majority—will of the majority—could always be obtained fairly, but this is true of no form.
I am not suggesting that all our laws expire in 19 years, but these are the people who wrote the Constitution saying, I’m not sure this thing is really good for more than 19 years or so, that if we are going to make sure that we fulfill the will of the majority, we might have to prune it.
The third thing, and this is the one that I think is most important for us here today, is that our Founders did not understand democracy nearly as well as we do.
They were an amazing group of people. They did an amazing thing, but we have 233 years of wisdom that they did not have. We learned something with that time over the course. I mean think about the fact that our Founders designed the Constitution with the idea that they would not be political parties. They called them factions but they couldn’t contemplate of a world where you could have a functioning democracy and political parties.
Well, I think we have proved you can do that.
They didn’t have standing armies. They didn’t have income taxes. They couldn’t contemplate of a country where women had the right to vote. They couldn’t contemplate a country where they didn’t have the ability to hold slaves and not only not allow them to vote but do a whole bunch of other things to suppress their freedom and their equality. They kicked that problem down the road.
Again, these things sound familiar, right? We have been there.
Now, they were wise enough to plan for those surprises—they made the Constitution amendable—but we know things they didn’t know. We are governing in a different environment still under those tools. And if we acknowledge they were no perfect than we are, if we acknowledge that we have a responsibility to move this baton forward, then I think we can be honest about what we can do and not be constrained by our own ambition.
Because what’s clear, the answer to that question, ‘‘why is it that we can’t do things that the majority of the American people want?’’ is in large part because while our Founders paid lipservice to democracy, they said in that letter that Jefferson wrote to Madison, that it is important that a government do the will of the majority.
At core, they didn’t really trust the will of the majority. They created the electoral college because they didn’t trust that people could be trusted with the vote. The direct elections of Presidents were going to be a problem.
You go and you read the stuff they wrote. They said some populous could just stir up the passions of some uninformed rube in the rural areas.
These are almost direct quotes.
They didn’t trust that people in a fully democratic society could elect a President so they created the electoral college. They created the Senate expressly to frustrate the will of the majority.
Now, I say ‘‘they,’’ it wasn’t a universal view, but there was no way that we were going to have these United States, to get all those colonies to agree, unless there was some way to prevent the will of the majority from causing laws to go forward.
So we created the Senate. You could argue that we created the Senate to preserve slavery, and it did that for, I don’t know, a couple dozen years. But it massively overrepresented the low population States in order to make sure that we could actually get people to agree to join in these United States. That is what they did.
Today, or when it was founded, the biggest State had 10 times the population of the smallest State. Today, it is up to almost 100. So, we have massively disenfranchised huge numbers of American people because of a structure that was designed to disenfranchise large but not as big numbers of American people.
We kick a bill out of here, you can get 50 votes in the Senate with people representing 17 percent of the United States population.
When our voters ask us why we can’t get things done that are supported by the will of the majority, it is built into our system.
And then finally, our Founders created the Supreme Court with largely no checks and balances on the Supreme Court— lifetime appointments, no ethics obligations. Goodness knows, we have seen a fair amount of what is going on there right now.
Remember, Marbury v. Madison that significantly expanded the power of the Court relative to the legislative branch came after the Constitution was signed. This is a different structure than what they contemplated, and that effectively gave the Supreme Court not the ability to write laws but darn close to it because you get one Supreme Court Justice that flips the majority, and all of a sudden, you can say that our work here, all the good work we put in, is unconstitutional and turned over with the whim of one vote. That is not majoritarian.
I’d ask you to consider for a moment what would our country look like just over the last couple dozen, maybe three decades if the will of the majority had prevailed, if we actually lived in a country where we only did what the majority of Americans want to do.
First off, I would like to introduce you to President Gore, followed not too long after by President Hillary Clinton. We would have elected our first female President because that was the will of the majority, right?
That would have had a dramatically different Supreme Court, whole numbers of decisions. How do we think about the Second Amendment in the wake of Heller? It would have been a heck of a lot different with different Judges on that Court.
How we think about campaign finance in the wake of Citizens United would have been quite a bit different with different folks on the Supreme Court.
The Dobbs decision—do we believe that women are truly equal in this society? That might have been a different decision if we had expressed the will of the people.
And by the way, campaign finance reform, a woman’s right to choose, wanting to not get shot, these are very popular things with the majority of the American people, yet we can’t deliver that because of what happened.
I am going to give an exception that proves the rule, and this one we don’t talk about enough here, but as House Members, this one should make us furious.
Last year, this body passed, on a bipartisan basis, the Emmett Till Antilynching Act. It made lynching a Federal crime—long overdue.
It went to the Senate. The Senate passed it, and the President signed it. It is a law now. It is now a Federal crime to lynch in America. Good for the Senate.
Do you know when that bill first passed this body? 1922. It took a hundred years, a century, for the Senate to acknowledge what the House had acknowledged for a hundred years, that lynching is bad. We have to fix this place, folks.
So, if we don’t want to answer that question anymore, when people say, ‘‘Why can’t you do what we want?’’ We all know what they tell us, right? ‘‘It is because you are corrupt. It is because your donors won’t let you do this. It is because you are just in it for your ego.’’
Look, there are some of us who suffer from those problems, but if the institution needs fixing, we can fix it on our own.
And if any of what I am saying sounds partisan, I mean, I get it. I am talking about women’s right to choose. I am talking about sensible gun control legislation. I am talking about who would have won the President. All of those things sound kind of partisan. That is only because, in this structure, we have gotten to a point where one party in America is representing the views of the majority of the American people, and the other party derives its power solely from those minoritarian institutions.
In a healthy democracy, we should all be competing for that mythical center of the electorate. We shouldn’t be sitting there and saying: I have a 20- year plan to stack the Court with Justices who will agree with me to overturn the will of the American people.
We shouldn’t be sitting there saying: Well, I can control the Senate if I just find a couple of Senate seats in a couple of low-population States with cheap TV markets.
We all know it happens, right?
We will be healthier, both of our parties, if we commit ourselves to the idea, as Jefferson said, that if we are not representing the will of the majority because no form of government ever consistently does, let’s fix it so that we do, which brings me to the three bills we introduced today.
The first bill is a constitutional amendment to add 12 national at-large Senators. It doesn’t do anything else to change the Senate. It doesn’t do anything to frustrate Article V. That you can’t in any way diminish the relative power of the Senate. But imagine what would happen if 10 percent of the Senate had an interest in representing the will of the American people.
We would then sit there in this House, the people’s House, where we represent the will of the American people, with confidence that we had people fighting for us over there.
It would make it that much harder for them to filibuster a good bill that comes out of here because why would you filibuster something that is supported by the majority of the American people?
It would also, by adding 12 senators, add 12 more electors representing the popular vote. That would reduce the number of scenarios where we could have the popular vote winner lose an election to the electoral vote winner. That is the first bill.
The second one is to expand this House, and in the next Census, 2030, say let’s go out and look at the smallest State in the Union and say the size of that State is going to set the size of a congressional district because if we are the House of Representatives, we should make sure that all of us represent as close as we can the same number of people.
The House hasn’t grown since 1911. The population of the United States has grown three and a half times since 1911.
All of us in this room, on average— your mileage may vary—represent 737,000, 740,000 people. In 1911, we represented 200,000 people.
Imagine how much different our jobs would be if we had 200,000 constituents to represent, to go talk to, to understand, to make sure that we reflected their views. We would be better. We would be more representative.
There are only two countries in the world with parliamentary democracies that represent more people than we do: India and Afghanistan. We are the crazy outlier, right?
So let’s expand the House and make us more representative. If we did that based on the last Census, that would add something like 130 seats to this House.
Again, would add further electors. It would make us more diverse. It would bring in a new group of people. It would make us better, make us more representative.
And then the third, because I know there are a lot of constitutional originalists in the room, is to restore the Supreme Court to their Article III responsibilities.
If you haven’t read it in a while, I encourage you to go read Article III of the Constitution that lays out the scope of the Supreme Court. It says that they are responsible for matters of admiralty law, maritime law, matters relating to ambassadors, disputes between the States, and in such appellate jurisdictions the Congress may see fit to provide from time to time.
Well if we have a Court that is consistently not fulfilling the will of the American people, if we have a Court that is consistently encroaching on our power here in this Chamber, overturning our judgments and what we do, it is in our power to perhaps see fit from time to time to reduce their appellate jurisdiction.
So, what we have said is: Let’s reduce their appellate jurisdiction to the circuit courts, and let’s depoliticize judge selection processes. By, if the courts are going to say that a law that we passed is unconstitutional, we will select from a pool of circuit court judges, appellate court judges, at random, and it will take at least 70 percent of them to overturn a bill that we pass out of here.
It takes two-thirds for us to overturn a veto, right? Let’s hold them to the same standard. Let’s not make this political. Let’s get enough people involved in the pool that you can’t politicize this. Do it for the good of making this place work.
Also, it would eliminate the shadow docket. Why do we allow ourselves to continue to live in a world where the Supreme Court can just decide to rule on something and not even explain it? How do you work as a lawyer if you don’t know that? Let’s get rid of the shadow docket.
I am not perfect. You aren’t perfect, Mr. Speaker. None of us in this room are perfect. Our Founders weren’t perfect, but we are perfectible, and we have a job that affords us the opportunity and the responsibility to make our government a little bit better, a little bit more responsive, a little bit more democratic, to move the baton forward.
I would submit that that is just an amazing privilege. I am grateful to have it. I am grateful to serve with all of you.
I hope I can get the support of this body and my colleagues to redouble our commitments to make our government better, to make sure that we honor Jefferson’s promise to tune it and tweak it if it is not carrying out the majority will, and to pass that baton forward to whoever follows us up to be in a little better position than we had ourselves.
Thank you Mr. Speaker, and I yield back.