December 23, 2008
There is an anachronism from the 1800’s that is choking American democracy. The U.S. Senate makes its own rules and has a rule to cut off a filibuster (read unlimited delay), known as cloture. Currently cloture requires a supermajority of 60 votes. The senate’s original cloture rule was 66, but the senate changed its rules after Watergate scandals to 60. This rule purportedly protects the minority from a tyranny of the majority. The effect of this rule is that a bill in the senate must have 60 votes before it can even come to the floor for an up or down vote. Some would argue that this practice is a reasonable restraint on the excesses of populism, a control on rash actions. Even accepting this opinion ignores the structure of the senate specified in Article I. At the constitutional convention the Connecticut compromise ensured that the large states would not have simple majority control. By allocating two senators from each state a minority of the population can defeat the ambitions of the majority. These citizens of the small states are commonly portrayed as being wiser. In concert these two rules, one constitutional and one institutional, are an excessive block on legislative actions, often until the situation is in extremis. A minority of senators representing a minority of the national population are more subject to actions that are contrary to what is best for the entire country. Let us observe the other branch of government where individuals reach a decision, i.e., the Supreme Court. In that court a simple majority of the justices prevails. No supermajority is required to “protect the minority”. The common sense idea that the more people in favor of an action means better prospects for it being right is at the core of democracy. No reasonable person argues that the minority doesn’t need to be protected in this system. But when a minority of a minority can substitute their opinion for the majority democracy is suffocated. How can advocates of democracy tell a skeptical public that they should be involved in their government when their cause will be sidetracked by special interests? Let’s give democracy a chance to work.
Currently reading: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow