Representative Democracy vs. the Senate filibuster

In his Washington Sketch column Monday, Dec. 21, Dana Milbank writes about “An ugly finale for health-care reform”:

At 4 p.m. Sunday afternoon — nine hours before the 1 a.m. vote that would effectively clinch the legislation’s passage — Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) went to the Senate floor to propose a prayer. “What the American people ought to pray is that somebody can’t make the vote tonight,” he said. “That’s what they ought to pray.”

It was difficult to escape the conclusion that Coburn was referring to the 92-year-old, wheelchair-bound Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.V.) who has been in and out of hospitals and lay at home ailing. It would not be easy for Byrd to get out of bed in the wee hours with deep snow on the ground and ice on the roads — but without his vote, Democrats wouldn’t have the 60 they needed.

This blog is not a place for me to voice opinions on political affairs and public policy, or for concerns about the state of Coburn’s soul following his blasphemous pretension that his views on health care policy (or the views of his “prayercast”-ing colleagues) are the views of God Himself.

But in my teaching every year on Social Studies curriculum, I like to use current examples in presenting perennial social and political matters, such as (in this case) the functions and dysfunctions of political processes and institutions, such as the supposedly representative decision making by the U.S. Congress.

Why was Byrd’s presence so crucial? Why do supporters of health care legislation need 60 votes in the 100-member Senate?

This has to do with our system of representative government, which the first Republican president famously referred to as government “of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Concern for popular representation in policy making has been especially intense this year, with the Tea Party protests and all.

The idea behind the “Tea Party” protests derives, of course, from the “Boston Tea Party” of 1773. Colonists at that time were upset about having to pay taxes imposed by the British Parliament, when they were denied representation in that Parliament. Hence the slogan: “No taxation without representation!

The peculiar thing about that slogan as it’s been used in the 2009 “Tea Party” protests is, of course, that any taxes passed by Congress must be passed by a legislature in which the people do have representation. Members of the Senate and the House of Representatives are elected by the voters in their states and districts.

These “tea partiers” seem to be protesting against any system in which representation of their own views does not prevail — even though they are a minority. They seem to be demanding that their views should override all others. If they support representation of other views at all — such as the majorities who voted to elect our current President and Congress members — they seem to be insisting that their own minority views must override any representation of the majority.

If that demand does not seem reasonable, it still might describe the situation that is playing out today — and the reason why Senator Byrd’s vote on the health care legislation is so critical.

In the United States Senate, a majority vote of the Senators, or votes by Senators representing a majority of the U.S. population, or a majority of the States, may not be enough to win the vote.

In the Senate, they have this thing they call a “filibuster.”

Historically, the filibuster was used only rarely, in the most exceptional of controversies. As seen in the chart at left, however, during the Clinton and Obama years, Republican minorities in the U.S. Senate have raised the frequency of filibusters, to the point where it has become almost the routine situation that it now takes sixty votes to win on almost anything in the Senate, instead of just a 51-vote majority.

This creates a situation in which a minority can paralyze the government of the United States.

Many people have been questioning whether it makes sense, and whether it is fair, to allow a minority to override the will of the majority, by always now requiring a “super-majority” to get anything done.

So far, I haven’t really added anything (except for the links and graphics) to what’s already familiar to anyone who cares about such things.

“So why am I even writing this post?” you might ask.

I’m posting this to illustrate how the situation can be even worse than you might think, if you’re thinking that it takes 40% of the American electorate to block the will of the majority.

The problem is made worse by the way that representation in the US Senate is already rigged to give more representation to the people in small states than to people in the states with larger populations.

The pie chart on the right represents the situation now, with Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska having been the last Senator to agree with the other 59 in his caucus to vote for ending the filibuster against health care reform, and allowing the legislation to move forward toward a final vote.

Even as he announced that he would not be joining the Republicans in their pre-Christmas filibuster, he made it very clear that he reserved the right to join them in a filibuster to stop the final passage of the legislation later, if he does not get everything he wants:

Less as a threat, and more of a promise let me be clear. This cloture vote is based on a full understanding that there will be a limited conference between the Senate and House. If there are material changes in the conference report to this bill that adversely affect this agreement, I reserve the right to vote against the next cloture vote. Let me repeat: if the conference report has material changes to this agreement, I am reserving the right to vote against cloture.  (December 19, 2009)

As the sixtieth vote to stop a filibuster, Nelson has the power to squelch even the kinds of provisions for a maybe/someday public option that Senator Lieberman could have accepted, and the power to restrict women’s freedom of choice. And he’s sticking to his “promise” to join in the GOP filibuster if the House-Senate Conference doesn’t give him everything he wants.

So a cloture-proof filibuster is more than just a remote hypothetical possibility. The pie-chart here provides a picture of what it means for representative democracy when such a minority can hold hostage the government of the United States. The minority — in terms of representation of the people — is significantly less than the 40% that it is often thought to be.

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One Comment

  1. Posted October 6, 2014 at 1:49 am | Permalink

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