Back of the Napkin: What if there were no states?

  1. Introducing Back of the Napkin: Are crazy ideas really that crazy?
  2. Back of the Napkin: What if there were no states?

By: Patrick W. Zimmerman

The American federal system was designed to balance the competing powers of several quasi-autonomous and rather grumpy states, who were doing everything from printing their own currency to forming their own militias (you know, just in case those Dutch heathens in New York decided to get uppity and invade Massachusetts). They called themselves “states,” and in the late 18th century, that meant something a lot closer to “sovereign state” than the current “American term for ‘province’, but with a touch more self-government” usage.

Given that the question of at what level sovereignty lies in the US has been definitively answered, are the states really just redundant, vestigial polities from the early period of the country?

The question

What if we eliminated the influence of states at the national level, and just made them provinces like in most other countries?

So, Washington State would have the same role as British Columbia. Let’s leave Québec out of this discussion for now. Sorry, Californian and Texan independence movements; in this exercise, you’re not that special.

The verdict: Crazy like a fox or just plain crazy?

Not crazy but really unlikely to happen due to the inertia of political systems.  There’s a decent chance the electoral college gets removed sometime in the next 100 years or so, but the Senate?  That’s probably here to stay for as long as the American Experiment lasts.

What would change?

A unicameral legislature

Bye, bye Senate!  It’s just a House Party now. And like all good house parties, removing the moderating effect of the Senate would make politics less centrist and probably more volatile.  But maybe a little more fun for the popcorn-eating political junkies out there. Lefties are further left, conservatives more conserving, tea partiers more thirsty.  Largely as an effect of their constituencies being narrower, the House tends to represent a wider swath of the American political spectrum.

This is one of the reasons the Senate was created in the first place, to tamp down the wild impulses of the directly-elected representatives of the rabble mob with governor-appointed educated gentlemen that would know better.  If that sounds paternalistic, that was kind of the point: let the will of the people rule….but in a safe (for the gentry), limited way.

The end result? The Legislative Branch of government would lean more towards the GOP.  At least until January 2019 (depending on midterm results later this year).

No electoral college

The oftlamented Electoral College is based around states sending electors as their representatives.  It is, de jure, the states that elect the Chief Executive of the US, within which context the idea of winner-take-all electoral tallies makes sense. Without the states as a unit of consideration for national elections, then, popular vote would determine presidential races.

The key determining factor

Gerrymandering cases currently pending

The short answer is this.  This is the big one, whether or not this no states idea takes off.  How much can those in power be allowed to redraw the electoral map to make sure they stay there?  Partisan gerrymandering was just struck down in Pennsylvania.   The SCOTUS will be weighing in on this soon.

What do you gain from this change?

A closer link between the will of the governed and the will of the governors.

The potential for more parties.

  • There should be more potential for parties with niche appeal to win representation within their districts. Though the change from the current situation may mostly be one of focus; it’ll depend a lot on the relative budgets given by would-be third parties allocated to presidential PR campaigns vs. legislative campaigns.

What do you lose?


  • The Senate was designed to insulate the policy from mobocracy. Strong state governments can have a similar effect allowing California (to take a topical example) to enact strict environmental laws, Washington be damned.

What would have passed?

We’re going to look at just the last two sessions of Congress (113 & 114, so the Obama Era) because the way that Congress coded its data changed in 2008, making comparing like-to-like a bit more of a data transformation pain than was really merited by this kind of pilot study. We’re als not going to consider Presidential Vetoes, so the below list is bills that passed the House (by any margin) but did not pass the Senate (or were never brought to a vote). All bill data gathered using the ProPublica Congress API, because counting tens of thousands of bills by hand is tedious.

Oh, man, the House shoots out legislation like it’s coming out of a firehose. There were 1051 bills in the 113th and 114th Congresses alone that passed the House but not the Senate. That’s just under a bill per day that the House is in session that was “Received in the Senate and referred to the Commmitte on _____,” never to be heard from again (taking 138 working days per year as the average load a Representative has to shoulder).

Some of these bills were meaningful (for good or bad), some were redundant or otherwise kind of silly. Some applied to naitonal issues, and there was also a fair amount of good ol’ pork for the barrels back home.

A few select patterns:

  • The House really wanted to throw the book at Iran, and the Senate wasn’t so sure. There were no fewer than 6 separate bills that passed the House (but not the Senate) during Obama’s second term (HRs 3457, 3662, 5119, 5461, 5711, & 5119).
  • The House would’ve made it a lot harder to have an abortion and riskier (from a legal standpoint) for doctors to perform one. Also, to be Planned Parenthood. 5 bills fall into this group during the Obama Era, 1 from his first term, 4 from his second (HRs 1797, 7, 36, 3134, & 3504).

Other selected stillborn bills of interest:

  • The Keystone XL Pipeline completion approval (twice). Now, probably a moot point, given a new president and new memoranda.
  • Prohibition of prisoner transfer from Guantanamo Bay. A fun combination of NIMBYism and an attempt to make it harder for Obama to close the camp.
  • The Secret Science Reform Act. Way less cool than it sounds, it was basically a bill to make it harder for the EPA to take any action without over-the-top documentation of scientific conensus, including data, raw data, “computer codes” used in analysis, and instructions on how to use the above. So, the EPA would be required to find incontrovertible scientific consensus and write models in R that could be read by your standard legislator.
  • Death Tax Repeal. Because thems that has should be allowed to make sure that their heirs get.
  • The first mention of “Extreme Vetting,” in a surprisingly and totally different sense than it’s been used by President Trump: Will Hurd (R-TX), proposed an open-source software project to share screening information with foreign governments, to better coordinate and track terror suspects. Which actually kind of makes sense and is a whole lot different from a travel ban.

All the data

Because you’re a masocist, a completionist, or just really like C-SPAN.

What’s next?

Well, given that this entire series is dedicated to exploring unconventional ideas, the likely answer is: not a lot. However, the whole point is to get readers used to thinking about new solutions. No sociopolitical structure is so great that it can’t be improved, but that usually doesn’t come about by choosing from the same menu of political options that’s been on offer for decades.

Soft ideas and crazy thought experiments are good things. Because some of them will inevitably turn out to be not so crazy, after all.

About The Author

Architeuthis Rex, a man of (little) wealth and (questionable) taste. Historian and anthropologist interested in identity, regionalism / nationalism, mass culture, and the social and political contexts in which they exist. Earned Ph.D. in social and cultural History with a concentration in anthropology from Carnegie Mellon University and then (mostly) fled academia to write things that more than 10 other people will actually read. Driven to pursue a doctorate to try and answer the question, "Why do they all hate each other?" — still working on it. Plays beer-league hockey, softball, and soccer. Professional toddler wrangler. Likes dogs, good booze, food, and horribly awesome kung-fu movies.

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