Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The U.S. Constitution and the Supermajority

Does the U.S. Constitution work?
by Charlie Leck

A few days ago I introduced you to some of Andy Driscoll’s thinking about the U.S. Constitution. As I expected, a few of you found it rather radical. [To read Driscoll’s comments, click here!] For the record, I don’t think his thinking is radical, but I do believe the concept of rewriting the Constitution of the United States of America is a bit unrealistic; THOUGH I AGREE THAT IT OUGHT TO BE DONE.

The following two paragraphs were at the heart of the Driscoll essay about America becoming ungovernable, and I will repeat them here:

The United States is far more like the dying Rome than most of us would care to admit, but the wide disparities in the provision of those basics is pulling us down into an uncivilized muck of a country, our ability to govern ourselves completely out of control - and for many millions of us, abandoning the power that true democracy should bestow: simply...voting.

Electoral defections from such democratic means to quietly revolt against the desecration of our stated principles leaves us no alternative but to accept the national cultural deterioration as inevitable, and thus, we leave to irrational, but powerful, few the power to set the agenda for our cities, our counties and towns, our states, and, eventually, our country from behind the scenes, as they have for some decades now, slowly, but surely.

What impedes government these days, to point to specifics, are the archaic rules of the U.S. Senate. Essentially, either party can stop the will of the majority by invoking the nonsensical “Rule of 60” or the filibuster. This rule crushes what is at the heart of our Constitution and what forms the soul of Democracy – the rule of the majority.

The minority party in the Senate can refuse to end debate on any agenda item, so that a vote might be taken, and the entire Senate is held hostage unless it can muster 60 votes to end such debate and call for a vote.

The filibuster is not established by the Constitution, but by a quirky rule of the Senate – a rule that I believe is counter to the Constitution and should be tested before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the interest of full disclosure, there have been times when I was glad to see Democrats filibuster when the Republicans held the majority; however, I always felt it was both stupid and silly and I was embarrassed by such an abuse of minority power.

The U.S. Constitution calls for a “supermajority” on only a few specific occasions in the Senate: (1) when overriding a Presidential veto; (2) confirming treaties; (3) removing a president or other leaders who have been impeached by the house.

The framers of the Constitution did not impose such a supermajority requirement to end debate in the Senate.

The filibuster rule is just a part of Senate tradition – and an antiquated tradition it is. Historically, it was used during the 19th century to protect the states that held slaves. Both Alexander Hamilton and James Madison opposed such a limitation on the rule of the majority. Hamilton, in his Federalist Paper (22) warned that “the sense of the majority should prevail.” Instead, in our current U.S. Senate, a disruptive minority can force its will on the wishes of the majority and strangle to death important, and even crucial, legislation.

The Senate rule can be changed!
It is possible to change the rules in the Senate and it is high-time for it to happen. All of us should be urging our Senators to stop fooling around with the will of the people and trash the rule that allows legislation to be filibustered. There may come a day when we will regret not having such minority power, but fair is fair!

Voice your opinion to your U.S. Senator! That’s what democracy is all about.


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1 comment:

  1. Fuller quote from federalist 22:

    ...But this is not all: what at first sight may seem a remedy, is, in reality, a poison. To give a minority a negative upon the majority (which is always the case where more than a majority is requisite to a decision), is, in its tendency, to subject the sense of the greater number to that of the lesser. Congress, from the nonattendance of a few States, have been frequently in the situation of a Polish diet, where a single veto has been sufficient to put a stop to all their movements. A sixtieth part of the Union, which is about the proportion of Delaware and Rhode Island, has several times been able to oppose an entire bar to its operations. This is one of those refinements which, in practice, has an effect the reverse of what is expected from it in theory. The necessity of unanimity in public bodies, or of something approaching towards it, has been founded upon a supposition that it would contribute to security. But its real operation is to embarrass the administration, to destroy the energy of the government, and to substitute the pleasure, caprice, or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent, or corrupt junto, to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority. In those emergencies of a nation, in which the goodness or badness, the weakness or strength of its government, is of the greatest importance, there is commonly a necessity for action. The public business must, in some way or other, go forward. If a pertinacious minority can control the opinion of a majority, respecting the best mode of conducting it, the majority, in order that something may be done, must conform to the views of the minority; and thus the sense of the smaller number will overrule that of the greater, and give a tone to the national proceedings. Hence, tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good. And yet, in such a system, it is even happy when such compromises can take place: for upon some occasions things will not admit of accommodation; and then the measures of government must be injuriously suspended, or fatally defeated. It is often, by the impracticability of obtaining the concurrence of the necessary number of votes, kept in a state of inaction. Its situation must always savor of weakness, sometimes border upon anarchy.....

    (look it up, there are 2 more paragraphs like this.)