The Rhetoric of No

U.S. Senators Jim Bunning and Tom Coburn have been deploying the rhetoric of no lately, able to halt an extension of unemployment benefits (for example) simply by rising from their senatorial seats and speaking “No,” with minimal elaboration, into a microphone. They claim they are against such legislation because they want to control the deficit. Of course, a better, more strategic way of controlling the deficit would be to address deep structural issues, such as how much the U.S. spends on its military, relative to other countries, and relative to the rest of the budget. But even discussing cuts in military spending seems taboo.

Senators’ use of the rhetoric of no highlights the presence of equal legislative representation (all states get 2 senators) vs. population-based representation (states get representatives based roughly on population). I gather this bicameral arrangement sprang from something called “The Connecticut Compromise” when the Constitution was being drafted. The compromise was between populous states in the emerging union and less populous ones, obviously. But in the 21st century the gap between populous and not-so-populous can be massive and can make turn the rhetoric of no into a large weapon wielded indirectly by just a few people.

For instance, the population of Oklahoma, which Coburn represents, is about 3,690,000, whereas the population of Florida is about 18,540,000. Now check out the difference in population between North Dakota and California: 647,000 versus 37,000,000. Kent Conrad has as much power as Barbara Boxer, while the latter ostensibly represents a vastly greater number of citizens. I imagine all senators, however, focus chiefly on representing the interests of enough voters to win re-election–at least 51 % of the electorate–whether they’re giving long-winded speeches to a camera and an empty chamber, or whether they’re deploying the taciturn but powerful rhetoric of no.


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