The Great Compromise: State Power

by Reinout Debergh

The Great Compromise

In 1787, delegates from the thirteen states of the newly founded USA came together at the Constitutional Convention. There were two plans on the table: the Virginia Plan (VP) and the New Jersey Plan (NJP) [1]. The VP was favored by  larger states and included having two houses of Congress in which representation was based on population [2]. However, smaller states did not like this and feared it would lead to larger states dominating Congress [1]. So they proposed the NJP which included only one house of Congress in which each state had equal representation [2]. With the ratification of the Constitution at risk due to this disagreement, a solution came from two delegates from Connecticut which became known as the Connecticut Compromise or the Great Compromise [1]. One chamber (the House) would have representation based on population while the other (Senate) would have equal representation for each state. 

The plan narrowly passed on July 23, 1787.

Who’s in the Senate

Each state has two senators as written in Article I Section 3 of the Constitution [3]. While it also says that senators are chosen by the state legislatures, this was amended in 1913; from then onwards they would be chosen directly by the people [1, 3]. Figure 1 below shows the partisanship of the current US senators. In total there are 48 Democratic Senators, 50 Republican senators and 2 Independent ones (not belonging to either) [4]. The geographical divide between coastal and interior regions is clear from the map below. 

Figure 1. Map showing the partisanship of US State senators per state. Democrats = 2 Democratic senators,Republicans = 2 Republican senators, mixed = one Republican and one Democrat. Main and Vermont have one Independent each and one Republican and Democrat respectively [4].

Just like in the House, there are some important roles in the Senate. It also has:

  • a majority leader (Chuck Schumer, Democrat for New York),
  • a majority whip (Durban Richard, Democrat for Illinois),
  • a minority leader (Mitch McConnell, Republican for Kentucky),
  • a minority whip (John Thune, Republican for South Dakota) [5].

Their roles are similar to those of their House counterparts. However, unlike in the House, the majority leader (the Speaker in the House) is not chairing the Senate [6]. This role is reserved for the Vice President (currently Kamala Harris, Democrat from California) [6, 7]. But the Vice President rarely attends, as they can only vote in case of a tie. Thus, the president pro tempore takes over in the absence of the Vice President. Typically, this role falls to the most senior member of the majority party (now Patrick Leahy, Democrat for Vermont). In practice, this function has no real power as any senator that wants to speak can do so [6].

Working of the Senate

Just like the House the Senate has committees and subcommittees but with some differences:

  • 16 standing committees compared to 20 in the House
  • each committee is about half the size of those in the House
  • subcommittees cannot change the content of a bill
  • bills are scheduled by the majority leader (usually together with the minority leader), not the rules committee
  • no time limits for debates [6].

This last point is particularly relevant as it has hindered the passage of bills in Congress as senators can debate for as long as they want. A senate debate can only be ended by invoking cloture which requires 60 votes [8]. Given the current 50/50 split, achieving cloture is highly unlikely to say the least [4]. This is sometimes used by opponents of a bill as a tactic to wear down its proponents so that the bill is either withdrawn or altered. This is known as the filibuster [6]. 

The term ‘fillibuster’ was only used from the mid-19th century onwards. It is derived from the Dutch word for “freebooter” and the Spanish “filibusteros” for pirates [10]. The filibuster could be described as a hijacking of the Senate debate just like pirates hijack ships [9].  — However, cloture should not be confused with the necessary votes for passing legislation. For this a simple majority, like in the House, suffices [9]. But where does the filibuster come from and why is it not possible in the House?

History of the filibuster

The Constitution does not say how the two chambers should be governed; this decision was left to the legislators. However, the rulebook originally included something called the ‘previous question motion’ which allowed a simple majority to end any debate. In 1806, this was deleted in the Senate from lack of use, in order to streamline the rulebook, therefore allowing for filibustering. But in the House, the motion was used in 1811 to immediately end the filibuster of a New York representative regarding a trade embargo against the UK [9,11]. That precedent prevents the use of the filibuster in the House today [9].

Frustration with the filibuster in the Senate was getting so high that in 1917 the cloture rule was established, enabling  a two-third majority to  end a debate. This was reduced to a three-fifth majority in 1975. In recent years filibustering regarding presidential and Supreme Court nominees was prohibited by Democrats and Republicans respectively [6]. So what is the longest filibuster that has ever happened? This record belongs to Strom Thurmond from South Carolina in 1957 with 24 hours and 18 minutes [10]!

Reference List

[1] Onion, A., How the Great Compromise and the Electoral College Affects Politics Today, History,, accessed on 06/08/2022.
[2] Shields, J., The Virginia Plan vs. the New Jersey Plan: A Constitutional Grudge Match, HowStuffWorks,, accessed on 06/08/2022. 
[3] The Constitution of the United States: A Transcription, National Archives,, accessed on  06/08/2022.
[4] List of current members of the U.S. Congress, Ballotpedia,, accessed on 06/08/2022.
[5] Leadership & Officers, United States Sen ate,, accessed on 06/08/2022.
[6] Patterson, T., 2019, We the people: an introduction to American government, McGraw-Hill Education, Edition 13, ISBN 978-1-259-91240-5.
[7] Kamala Harris, The White House,, accessed on 06/08/2022.
[8] Reynolds, M., What is the Senate filibuster, and what would it take to eliminate it?, The Brookings Institution,, accessed on 13/08/2022.
[9] McKeever, A., The history of the filibuster—and how it came to exasperate the U.S. Senate, National Geographic,, accessed on 13/08/2022.
[10] About Filibusters and Cloture | Historical Overview, United States Senate,, accessed on 13/08/2022. [11]  Whereas: Stories from the People’s House: Fighting the Filibuster, United States House of Representatives,, accessed on 20/09/2022.
Categories North America

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