Home The Washington Diplomat November 2013 Minority Rule: Democratic Safeguard Or Source of Political Dysfunction?

Minority Rule: Democratic Safeguard Or Source of Political Dysfunction?

Minority Rule: Democratic Safeguard Or Source of Political Dysfunction?

At the outset of the government shutdown, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman foretold that a cadre of elected extremists was imperiling American democracy itself.

“What is at stake in this government shutdown forced by a radical Tea Party minority is nothing less than the principle upon which our democracy is based: majority rule,” he wrote.

It sounded apocalyptic.

Likewise, Time magazine’s cover showed the Capitol beset by thunderclouds, the words “Majority Rule” scratched out in red.

Both Friedman and Time went on to tell ominous tales of how dozens of tea party Republicans in the House of Representatives and a few in the Senate had commandeered budget negotiations to bring the federal government to a screeching stop and threatened to push the country into an unprecedented default — all to enact a political wish-list they failed to achieve through the normal legislative process, thereby usurping the wills of most voters, most politicians and even many GOP high-muck-a-mucks.

And, gloomy as it was, this appraisal was pretty right on.

Also prescient were the authors’ prognostications that plenty of nastiness lied ahead.

Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
Picture of better days? President Barack Obama is greeted by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) before delivering his 2011 State of the Union address. That year, Obama and Boehner held extensive budget negotiations, which ultimately collapsed. During this year’s government shutdown, the two reportedly did little talking.

Accounts abounded of furloughed workers struggling to make rent, disconsolate vacationers being turned away at national parks, apoplectic World War II vets storming barricaded memorials, life-saving cancer research projects idling in locked labs, low-income mothers pleading for supplement-funded milk for newborns, and America’s gross domestic product — not to mention its once-sterling reputation as a global economic safe haven — seeping into the storm drain.

At the last minute, per Beltway tradition as of late, disaster was averted when the Senate stepped in with a bipartisan deal after House Republicans failed to coalesce around a proposal. Under the agreement, the government will be funded through Jan. 15 and the debt ceiling raised until Feb. 7. House and Senate negotiators will now work to hammer out a long-term tax and spending blueprint by Dec. 13.

Ultimately, House Republicans had little to show for their brinkmanship beside egg on their faces. The deal left Obamacare virtually untouched (other than strengthening income verification measures for people receiving health care subsidies). Unlike past confrontations, the Democrats didn’t budge and it was the GOP that blinked.

But the battle is merely on hold until the next pitched showdown a few months from now. Fundamental disagreements over sequestration, entitlement spending and tax reform remain. In the meantime, lingering bitterness abounds that a small club of House Republicans subverted democracy. There is some merit to the argument. The crusade to gut Obamacare, for one, flew in the face of political reality. The Affordable Care Act was crafted and passed by Congress (in partisan fashion, although that’s nothing new), deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court, and put to a national referendum during the 2012 presidential election, which Obama won.

Although polls show that the law remains unpopular and confusing to a large number of Americans, an overwhelming majority of voters disapproved of shutting down the government to defund it. The GOP’s approval ratings tanked during the 16-day standoff — a mid-October NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that only 24 percent of Americans had a favorable view of Republicans and just 21 percent had a favorable view of the tea party (Obama’s was 47 percent).

Yet the hard-core conservatives who spearheaded the campaign to defund Obamacare are somewhat immune to those poll numbers — thanks to the gift of gerrymandering (a time-honored bipartisan tradition by the way, although since 2010, Republicans have been more successful at it). Redistricting has created seats in the House that are virtually guaranteed to be won by a Republican, giving them little incentive to compromise with Democrats because it might make them vulnerable to primary challenges from more conservative candidates.

Another legislative hardnosed strategy that has eroded bipartisanship on the Hill is the informal Hastert rule, whereby the House speaker won’t introduce legislation that doesn’t have the backing of the majority of the Republican Party. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) could’ve passed a “clean” continuing resolution to fund the government at any time — he had enough Democratic and Republican votes to do so. But he chose to defer to a few dozen House Republicans for fear of losing his own job. Throw in the genuine disdain that members of Congress seem to have for their opponents, and dysfunction appears to be trumping democracy.

Rep. Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, voiced the palpable shift in tone in the GOP after its shutdown defeat, urging his party to “be willing to negotiate and to compromise and … to put partisanship aside and govern for the greater good.”

He also made a pointed reference to his House colleagues. “The House must realize it is just one-half of one-third of this government, and that no laws can be made without the consent of the Senate and the president, just as they can’t enact laws without us.”

And therein lies the rub. While it’s important to assign blame for this latest bout of political posturing, it’s also worth calling attention to the fact that the initial premise proffered by Friedman and Time’s headline writers is simply not true. Majority rule is not the basis for the American political system. Nor was it ever. And there are good reasons for that, ones that we should be thankful for, at least some of the time.

It’s a sticky truth — and it’s also one of the many wonders that arose during this fiasco in which awestruck Americans asked how could their nation that was called indispensable mere weeks ago (during discussions about attacking Syria) appear so feckless now.

What’s more, observers abroad — whose capitals don’t have any operating procedures for how to capsize government, which stays open despite similar political bickering — questioned how a country that the world looks to when determining monetary policy could operate so haphazardly, so selfishly, even?

With these tough questions in mind, this column seeks to explain some of the root causes for the recent dramatic events. This installment deals with the structure of the American political system and how power is dispersed. It tries to get at how such a relatively small portion of our elected officials could bring the functioning of a gazillion-dollar government to its knees.

Photo: Gage Skidmore
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) speaks at a Values Voter Summit in D.C. in October 2011. Cruz led the charge against defunding Obamacare during the recent government shutdown and was seen as a hero by his tea party supporters, and a preening irritant to many of his GOP colleagues who blasted the senator for leading them to battle without an endgame.

A forthcoming column will address how subtle but profound changes in political parties over time have affected the way Washington functions — or doesn’t — in ways that the architects of the system weren’t likely to have foreseen, and how outside forces have helped freeze contemporary American politics in what appears to be interminable gridlock.

But let’s get back to this apocryphal notion that “majority rule” is the animating force behind the American body politic.

First, it’s important to point out that the tea party has frequently claimed the Constitution as its own legitimizing document, instead of America’s, but they’re really just the ones who are benefiting from it, exploiting its generosity when it comes to minority rule.

“The American system is not based, for the most part, on majority rule,” G. Bingham Powell Jr., a political science professor at the University of Rochester, told The Diplomat. In fact, of all the democratic nations he has studied, “the United States has one of the most anti-majority setups,” he said.

Yes, democracy, as practiced by the ancient Greeks, was based principally on majority rule. But the American system is far more complex than that groundbreaking design, as might be expected after several millennia of evolution. And, as different democracies go, ours is a particularly complicated beast whose defining features are a broad dispersal of power — including generous powers granted to political minorities — with lots of checks and balances.

First, it’s necessary to consider the architects who crafted this nation. The framers of the Constitution were zealous in their efforts to construct a society in which citizens like themselves would have a say in governance, and they were obsessively opposed to tyranny, which they realized came in an endless array of guises. Monarchs, religious leaders, charismatic politicians and military dictators all could become tyrants, they knew, as the excesses of kings, popes and also Oliver Cromwell were still fresh, moving examples for them.

But they also saw how unchecked majorities in Parliament gravitated toward tyranny.

Mere representation, they decided, wouldn’t be enough. Power would have to be carefully distributed both within the representative body and also among other institutions, with a basic assumption that if power can possibly be amassed and abused, then it is a fait accompli that it will be. This idea was especially prominent in the minds of Thomas Jefferson and his disciple and friend, James Madison, known as the “father of the Constitution.” The pair became the third and fourth presidents, respectively.

Scholars of ancient history, these men also were keenly aware of how the Athenian assembly, which gave unprecedented power to every citizen, eventually grew unwieldy, devolving into a rudderless tyranny of the masses that was as problematic as any despot.

So, too, they saw how class struggles were ravaging Europe, just as they had sewn systemic instability in the Roman Republic, which paved the way for Julius Caesar to claim absolute authority.

So after wresting their freedom from British overlords, a handful of the most brilliant thinkers of the time sought to conceive a government that could resist all manners of tyranny. “I have sworn upon the altar of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man,” wrote Jefferson.

The result of the founding fathers’ hell-bent pursuit of a strategy to prevent tyranny is that, as Powell pointed out, of all the liberal democracies in the world today, ours consists of an incredibly complicated system of checks and balances that, while allowing citizens to play a part, drains majorities of their presumed power and enshrines special privileges for minorities. It might seem that such a system could not endure, that it would be a ship too weighted-down to float, and yet today our democracy and constitution are, arguably, the oldest.

“There is some evidence that intense internal conflicts are avoided by having power-dispersing arrangements because it forces majorities not to run things down the throat of minorities,” said Powell, the author of such works on comparative government as “Contemporary Democracies: Participation, Stability, and Violence” and “Elections as Instruments of Democracy: Majoritarian and Proportional Visions.”

Powell was reluctant to attribute America’s broad successes as a nation on this facet of our society alone, but he did say that we are unique in ways that may have had a hand in our progress from an inchoate, unstable alliance among recently emancipated colonies to a global superpower.

Just the mere presence of two equal houses of the legislature is an uncommon feature that blunts the effect of a majority in either chamber, Powell told The Diplomat.

“On top of that, we have a president with veto power and the ability to issue decrees. In addition, we have a constitutional court that can overturn any law by the legislature or order from the executive branch. And, because we are a federation, we have state and local governments, too,” Powell said.

Thus, a majority of Americans might elect a president, but then opposition in either branch of the legislature can immediately stymie his or her agenda.

a3.rotunda.shutdown.capitol.storyA parliamentary system such as the one in the United Kingdom could not function this way. While Westminster is composed of two chambers, almost all of the governing power resides in the House of Commons. The elected majority there names the head of the party to be the prime minister, who wields much more authority than an American president as head of state. He or she retains power, including budgetary power, for example, as long as his or her party retains popularity in elections and support in the legislature. (On rare occasions, if the party lacks an oversize majority, it will form a coalition with smaller parties to push through an agreed-upon agenda, as is the case now.) If the party in charge obstructs the passage of a budget, a rare move, it would spark a no-confidence vote, the collapse of the ruling government and a new election. But even then, government services remain open.

Powell said that the British system is among the most majoritarian of the liberal democracies in the world today, which is ironic considering America’s emergence from the British yoke.

Of course, in the United States we have parties, or formalized coalitions, in the House and Senate. The framers of the Constitution couldn’t have foreseen modern political parties, but they must have envisioned voting blocs. And they did everything they could to prevent any particular interest or coalition from achieving hegemony.

They made it so that one branch of the legislature would be composed of officials representing entire states regardless of population. A Pennsylvania senator would have to consider urbane Philadelphia and also the campestral frontier. The interests of less populous states wouldn’t fall pray to more populous ones.

They made election to the House based on fixed units of people so that no splotch of the country would be without representation, and there would be no rotten boroughs as there were in England, where a parliamentary seat might represent a tiny number of people whose votes could easily be bought.

They staggered the election cycles of the House and the Senate — and within the Senate itself — so a populist wave that flooded the House would be checked by a Senate where roughly two-thirds of its members were not newly elected. Yet a bloc of hoary senators could also not amass power over time that wouldn’t be countered by the fresh blood pouring into the House every two years.

As intricate as all of this is — and as much as it is constructed to disfavor any majority — what has happened to our elected government since the Constitution was ratified has limited a majority’s power even further.

Perhaps the greatest symbol of how minority rule has blossomed in the United States is the Senate filibuster. This is not something that was written into the Constitution. Rather, the framers mostly left it up to each branch to determine its own rules. Fairly early on, the Senate allowed for a single senator to forestall legislation by talking indefinitely, or filibustering. Starting in the early 20th century, that tactic could be overcome by three-fifths of the Senate — or a super-majority of senators — voting for cloture, or the conclusion of debate.

However, what this has meant in practice, especially in recent years, is that the Senate is an institution that is not at all majoritarian in nature but super-majoritarian, where many laws must garner 60 out of 100 votes. This practice gives a minority in the chamber untold power.

“I don’t know of anyone else who has anything resembling a filibuster,” said Powell. “It really is an unusual American institution, and an unusually anti-majoritarian one.”

Consider for a moment just how much this rule flies in the face of the idea of majority rule: a single senator — just one person who might represent a land mass as small as Rhode Island or, for Wyoming’s senators, a mere fraction of 1 percent of the total U.S. population — is so potent that he or she can filibuster to squash legislation that would affect the entire nation.

Nowadays, the senator doesn’t even have to utter an actual word. The mere threat of a filibuster is enough to derail legislation.

Given all of these checks and balances and so many institutions that keep the majority from exercising its will, sometimes it seems more surprising that the country can pass any laws at all. That is no accident, either. The system is constructed for policymaking to be extremely rigorous, explained Powell.

“Madison designed these institutions, and they’ve been put in practice for a long time, that disperse political power and make it hard for majorities to do things — or make it very hard for bare majorities to do things, at least,” Powell explained. “We have had some historical circumstances where really big swings of public opinion in times of crisis led one side to get control, such as the New Deal in the 1930s, where we had the Democrats controlling all of the major institutions except for the judiciary and put in place radical policy changes. They were uncomfortable for the Republican minority. There were some intense conflicts. But the system survived it.”

The professor said the government shutdown of 2013, however, is in part a product of how the Obama presidency has differed from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s in terms of his party’s electoral success. FDR won the White House an unprecedented four consecutive terms and Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate — sometimes with sizable majorities — the entire time. Compare that to the brief window of control the party attained amid Obama’s rise to office.

“The problem with these non-majoritarian arrangements such as the U.S. is that effective governing requires cooperation or big, oversize majorities. But today we don’t have either one of those,” Powell said.

Today, we have a divided government again. One branch of the legislature can fairly easily block most policy changes. And if strong coalitions within the legislature vote as a bloc, and are significant enough in size to matter, which is exactly what the tea party is in the House, then they can have a significant ability to obstruct the objectives of their rivals.

Since Republicans won the House in 2010, they’ve aimed to be defensive specialists. The system does not afford them much ability to project policy, but they’ve used just about every bit of leverage around to exert their will anyway. They thereby wield a power far greater than their relative size.

How you judge this largely depends on where you stand on the issues being debated. So, for example, these days Democrats cry foul that Republicans who only control the House — or one-half of one-third of government — have blocked so much of their legislative agenda. They become even more indignant when discussing how a few dozen tea party Republicans in the House have had so much sway.

But try this thought experiment: If Republicans were to take over the White House and both branches of Congress in 2016 and were on the verge of repealing Obamacare, might not Democrats consider shutting down the government or threatening default to stop them? If they really believe that the health care reform bill granting coverage to millions of previously uninsured Americans is right for the country, shouldn’t they? Isn’t that what you do when you believe your back’s to the wall?

Of course, Democrats have never before threatened a shutdown or default, and they’ve quietly raised the debt ceiling for every Republican president before Obama. And some would contend that today’s Democrats are simply different in temperament than their colleagues on the other side of the aisle. However, the party was playing a bit of defense in 2005 when, while controlling none of the elected branches of government, they were able to forestall some of President George W. Bush’s nominees through the use of the Senate filibuster. Then-Senator Obama even voted against raising the debt ceiling in a show of opposition to the war in Iraq and foreign borrowing.

These were the means available to them as the party out of power, and they exercised them for political advantage and, presumably, because they thought they were in the right.

Despite disagreements on many issues, one thing that all sides seem unwilling to do is change the rules that regulate the majoritarian versus minoritarian dynamic. Those who are in power realize that they or their allies may not occupy that position for long. This is the reason why President Obama has ignored strident calls from Democrats to use the 14th Amendment to unilaterally raise the debt ceiling without Congress’s approval. It’s the reason why, despite repeated threats, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has not changed the Senate rules to nix the filibuster. When Republicans ruled the Senate, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) also ultimately demurred when faced with the same temptation.

Power is carefully balanced in our system of government. Few are willing to risk adjusting the scales. This brings up another important feature of the American political system that differs from other countries and may serve us well: In the United States, the composition of the minority changes quite frequently, both in terms of turnover in the branches of government, which has been fairly fast-paced in recent decades, and how the party coalitions are composed, by what ties them together. In other words, we have a continuing incentive to not be too majoritarian because, relative to elsewhere, the tables are frequently turned in America.

Whether we agree with what may seem like the churlishness of a party that’s out of power, or a cantankerous minority group within that party — especially when it is raising havoc at any cost — we should remember that while the framers did hope to achieve good governance, they were guided at least as much by a fear of ambition, and they sought to check it whenever they could.

But while the framers constructed a slow-moving system that forces deliberation, debate and compromise — much like a 20th-century Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, which challenged participants to make a complex machine to perform a simple task — all of those ingredients, deliberation, debate and compromise, are necessary for it to eventually budge. But at the moment, they’re in short supply, leaving the country at a dangerous standstill — one that’s costing us serious money, ironically even though the obstructionism is driven in large part by a desire to save money.

And we’re not just talking about the $24 billion or so that last month’s shutdown cost the economy. Macroeconomic Advisers estimates that the total toll of congressional intransigence, filibustering, sequestration and squabbling over the budget has robbed the economy of around $700 billion since 2010. Then there’s the incalculable cost of failing to address America’s festering problems. With the normal legislative process twisted into a series of manufactured crises, little actual business is getting done on Capitol Hill, and long-range issues such as job growth, immigration reform, climate change, the Arab Spring, etc., are falling by the wayside.

For now, our nation sputters from crisis to crisis. But, as it somehow endures, we must be thankful that not even in these chaotic times is it in danger of the tyranny that the architects of the Constitution tried so hard to protect us from.

Yes, we can mourn the sad state of politics, where few elected officials seem willing to cooperate for the benefit of all. We can decry the senselessness of the shutdown, the irresponsibility of flirting with default, the needless pain that has been inflicted. But had not the Rube Goldberg machine been rigged just so more than 200 hundred years ago, these United States of America might not have survived and prospered — majorities, minorities, and all.

About the Author

Luke Jerod Kummer is the congressional correspondent for The Washington Diplomat.