Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 9, 2016

How 37 Percent of the Nation Still Rules in 100-Member Senate

The way the drive for gun control got stymied shows that the operative dynamic in the Senate has become more insidious than ever.

It turns out that, in this case, the wishes of 9 in 10 Americans can be repelled by a group of lawmakers representing fewer than 3 out of every 8.

A whole series of surveys have found support in the 90 percent range for requiring background checks before almost all commercial firearms sales. That’s about as close as it gets to unanimity in the polling world. And that’s the heart of the proposal that was blocked Wednesday, effectively ending the debate over how best to reduce gun violence  — at least until after the next massacre in a schoolhouse, movie theater or supermarket parking lot.

On the surface, the reason was that 45 senators opposed the idea and, under the new normal for accomplishment in the chamber, any proposal of consequence can be stopped by any bloc of 41 or more. That’s because, three years ago, the dilatory dysfunction got so bad that the leaders of both parties struck a handshake deal. To keep filibusters from swallowing the Senate calendar whole, they would grant the minority an extra measure of leverage on any controversial votes for passing bills or adding amendments: They could insist that the other side come up with 60 affirmative votes, or a three-fifths supermajority.

The extent of that power was on profound display during the background check vote. With help from my colleague in news research, Jay Hunter, we assigned half of every state’s population to each of its senators and quickly calculated that the senators who killed the measure were voting on behalf of 37 percent of the nation’s populace. (Majority Leader Harry Reid’s “no” wasn’t counted because the Nevada Democrat only switched sides to preserve his parliamentary right to demand a do-over sometime in the next 20 months.)

Leaving out just one state and its lawmakers — the 26 million Texans who have Republicans John Cornyn and Ted Cruz as their spokesmen — the share of the national population represented by the senators on the prevailing side was 31.5 percent.

Viewed another way, 32 of the “no” votes were cast by senators from states with fewer than 5 million people, and all their states are home to just 15 percent of the population. From that group, Alabama and a dozen even smaller states — each of which has voted Republican in at least the past four presidential elections — saw both their senators oppose the compromise.

Plenty of people who did just fine in the civics portion of American history will be tempted to say: So what? This sort of outcome was guaranteed by the framers, who created a Senate where every state had equal representation, and where unfettered debate was encouraged, precisely so that the dissenting voices and the rural states would have the kind of clout they could only dream about in the House.

Yes, but …

There is no evidence the drafters of the Constitution contemplated the Senate’s tradition of unlimited debate morphing into a situation where the majority has to grow to three-fifths before it can lay claim to amending a bill. And the disparity between the big states that would surely dominate the House and the small states with a chance to exert power in the Senate is entirely different now from what it was at the end of the 18th century.

When Congress was created, Virginia was the biggest state and had 13 times the population of Delaware, then the smallest state. Today, there are 66 people in California for every one in Wyoming; 29 New Yorkers for every North Dakotan; and 17 people in Illinois for every person in Alaska.

And, accordingly, all six senators from those enormous urban and suburban states, with a combined population of 70.4 million, voted to require background checks before sales online or at gun shows. And all six from the tiny rural states, with 2 million residents among them, voted the opposite way.

To be sure, gun control legislation faltered for obvious reasons: The National Rifle Association remains as powerful and aggressive a lobbying power as ever, President Barack Obama’s personal attempts at persuasion didn’t work, three Democrats running in red states next year decided they could lose if they voted with their party, and the roster of maverick Republicans has atrophied.

But a final reason arches over all those: The system is skewed as never before to favor crusades by a determined minority from the small states. The NRA’s powers of persuasion may be without peer, but the 60-votes-for-everything Senate and the suburbanization of the nation have made its job a whole lot easier.

  • E L Frederick

    And those states that want those kind of restrictions are welcome to vote and pass them on their own. It doesn’t require Federal Action. The flyover states, we bitter clingers, will happily continue to cling to our bibles and our firearms.

    • Harry

      I think that the money contributed to their campaign accounts, in some instances, counts more than anything any constituent writes in letters or e-mails to their Senator.

      • ja836

        Harry – that is obvious – these legislators are being purchased by the NRA and the NRA is just doing the work for the gun industry. It is incredible the power they have and it is totally out of control. I would like to see a list of the NRA ratings for all of the legislators so we know what is driving their votes.

    • ja836

      What’s interesting is that you do not find that a contradiction. You love guns and the bible. You probably support the unjustified wars Bush got us into also.

      • Les Legato

        The wars that all Dems from Clinton on down CALLED FOR? Listen to them all IN THEIR OWN WORDS.

  • Richard

    A poll that says 90% of Americans support something didn’t translate into that 90% contacting their Senators telling them to vote for the proposal. I think we forget that at the end of the day, outreach from constituents to their representatives really does move the needle and a vocal minority defeats a silent majority.

    • Les Legato

      The 90% stat is garbage because almost half of all American’ just surveyed were GLAD the bill was defeated. (see Pew)

      The question they were being asked was basically “if more background checks could stop mass shootings, would you support it?” and of course they answered yes, and of course, according to both Manchin and Toomey (and that buffoon Biden), THEIR BILL WOULD DO NOTHING TO STOP MASS SHOOTINGS.

      Or as John Lott put it “people were really just being asked about whether they wanted to keep criminals from getting guns, not about the particular legislation being voted on by the Senate”.

      The bill was nothing but a step towards more registration, more and higher taxes and fees on gun owners, and leading down the path to complete confiscation,which Feinstein, Pelosi and Schumer ALL SUPPORT.

      So sthu already with your lies and your BS – you tried to bamboozle the American people the way you did helping the Dems steal the last 2 elections with fake news for your islamo-marxist Liar and Thief, AND YOU LOST.

      We won’t let you take our guns because WE KNOW WHY YOU WANT THEM:

      The only way for you to push America further to the Left socially and economically is with Executive Action, including outright fiscal confiscation and suppression of free speech, and you can’t do that with tens of millions of us being armed.

      Dosvedanya, Comrade. Too many of us know exactly what the 2nd is for… and it’s not for hunting or target shooting.


      “We are told not to judge Muslims based on the actions of a few. I suggest we give millions of responsible American gun owners that same courtesy.”
      – Internet…

      “We don’t let them have ideas.
      Why would we let them have guns? ”
      – Joseph Stalin

  • Harry

    Morover, I don’t think that the framers anticipated a number of states in the middle of the country, most of which have a small population, becoming states. Did they even know the western part of the United States even existed – California, Oregon and Washington, for instance.

    And did they anticipate states that would not even be contiguous to the other states like Alaska and Hawaii are?

    Did they also consider the fact that the District of Columbia could end up with a greater population than two of the states – Vermont and Wyoming – and have no voting representation in Congress?

    • ja836

      The framers had good intentions I am sure but they also didn’t know about the internet or the NRA or the power of the money in the gun industry.

      • Les Legato

        You’re right, we should not let people have unfettered access to the internet or personal printers or texting… certainly not without government control, licenses, taxes and fees and registration of all printers and internet accounts…


  • Jim Stephens

    Am I the only one that read Hawkins correctly as “90 percent range for requiring background checks before almost all commercial firearms sales” ? Key words here is “commercial” sales. A a dealer I already know that 100% of commercial sales of firearms (ie: dealer to user ) requires a background check!. This “90%” number that the liberals keep throwing around to make it sound so large is wrong in the context of “90% of Americans want background checks” is false. The correct context is to say “90% of the polled persons found support for requiring background checks before almost all commercial firearms sales.”. We don’t know how many were polled and what percentage of them are Democrat or Republican mixed. What we know now is that 45% of Senators polled during the vote represent 100% of the guns owners and the NRA by voting it down.
    We train the military, law enforcement, and people just like you. We are the largest organization watching out for your 2nd Amendment rights daily. Even the President himself acknowledges it in his speech that our efforts combined with member support foiled his plan to register every gun and invade your privacy.. We are united to protect you gun rights and protect our children from harm at school . We are the NRA and we don’t need a poll to vote with common sense.. This fight will never be finished so long as the few in power want to control your freedoms. Join us today at and help keep America, and Americans, strong.

    • ja836

      OMG – who are you – speaking for the NRA? You don’t train people just like me. I don’t follow your paranoid thinking that the government is going to attack us all. Seriously – who are you talking like you are the NRA? I searched your name and it doesn’t show you are some major player there. It doesn’t even connect your name to the NRA.
      The NRA is in it strictly for the money and I cannot believe anyone is fooled into thinking that is not the case. They are PAID to do the training so the more guns the more money they make. They do not care one bit about children. If the NRA and the gun industry cared about children then 2 year olds would NOT be able to fire a gun!! The few of you in the NRA are the ones controlling the freedom of the rest of us and I am sick of it. But nothing is going to be done unless money is met with money.

      Anyone else sick of this? We need to bring in insurance companies and require liability insurance for ALL gun sales. The benefits, besides the push to make a safer product (which is a tremendously serious problem):

      1. Insurance would put the responsibility of screening gun owners into the hands of insurance experts who know very well how to assess risk.

      2. Insurance companies will have the incentive of a new source of revenue and may be willing to take on the NRA for that reason. They have the financial resources to do so.

      3. Agencies could create and maintain an easily accessible database with gun serial number, insurance pin, and insurer that could be quickly checked before a sale yet protect the purchaser’s private information.

      4. Many instances of gun violence, including suicide, seem to be connected to individuals with mental health issues. Background checks can’t resolve this problem since a potential purchaser’s mental health history is protected. Insurance companies could protect this history and still be sure these individuals do not receive insurance coverage allowing them to purchase a gun.

      5. Insurance companies could be made aware of personal protection orders and follow up to be sure police confiscate any guns.

      6. Having insurance companies determine the risk takes the burden of background checks off our over-taxed law enforcement agencies.

      7. This puts the responsibility of gun violence on those who feel they have to have guns instead of all citizens bearing the responsibility and billions in costs.

      8. If someone has to purchase liability insurance before buying a gun they are not likely to give the gun to someone else or sell it without checking for the purchaser’s insurance policy.
      In 10 states gun deaths have surpassed vehicle deaths. I give that credit to insurance companies who have pushed for safer vehicles. To all the insurance companies out there – please step up and take this on.

      • Les Legato

        ” If the NRA and the gun industry cared about children then 2 year olds would NOT be able to fire a gun!”

        Most 2 year olds can’t LIFT a gun. You’re an intellectual midget.

        There is only ONE WAY to guarantee that no child ever would pick up a firearm their parent stupidly left out would be to ban ALL PRIVATE WEAPONS OWNERSHIP.

        And thats what you are aiming for, and thats why we will fight you to the end if we have to.

        THERE IS NO HARM FREE SOCIETY. By your stupid logic, ALL CARS SHOULD BE BANNED because teens steal them and kill people with them.

        With losers like you on the Left, criminals will always have access to firearms.

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