Majority rule has its limits

Now that Sen. Arlen Specter has prudently jumped off the sinking GOP ship, and with the apparent victory of Al Franken in Minnesota, the Democrats will have a filibuster-proof majority for at least some of their agenda. The filibuster, of course, appears nowhere in our  Constitution, yet it has been both an important safeguard and major impediment to liberty and effective government. What is the proper balance of majority rule and should there ever be a requirement of a “super majority?”
California presents an interesting paradox when it comes to majority rule. As we have recently witnessed, apparently a bare majority of citizens can amend the state constitution, even if it impinges the rights of others. Yet the same state requires that any budget must be passed by a supermajority of the state legislature.
In my opinion, this is wrong on both counts.
The requirement for a supermajority to pass a budget has paralyzed the state almost every year since the Jarvis-led anti-tax groups imposed that requirement in the state constitution. While some are pleased that the legislature is unable to effectively govern because a relatively small number of legislators can stymie any tax increase or indeed any budget they do not like, it has tremendous costs for all citizens.
The California Republican party has chosen to refuse to vote for any tax increases. That is their prerogative, but the result has been that our state budget is chronically out of balance (another constitutional requirement) and the way around this has led to weird budget sleight-of-hand maneuvers and excessive borrowing through bonds. Both end up costing much more to accomplish the same results for the state.
In the end, the supermajority requirement has led to less government efficiency, higher effective costs for government’s operations and less accountability to the citizens of the state.
On the federal level, all bills other than a few (most notably budget “reconciliation” bills) are at the mercy of a single senator’s objection through the filibuster. At times, this rule has stopped a runaway Senate from enacting some very bad legislation. At times, it has stood in the way of some very good legislation.
Many people assume we are a constitutional democracy and that if a majority vote in favor of something it should prevail. People even object to the oft-rumored vote skewing of American Idol as an example of protecting the right of a “real” majority of voters to prevail.
We are not a constitutional democracy and there are many times a majority cannot and should not prevail. Among them of course, is the complex way in which a federal Constitutional Amendment can be passed. Several supermajority steps are involved on the correct premise that the Constitution should not be easily amended so that essential rights and liberties should not be removed by an inflamed or runaway public.
Which brings us back to California. The state Supreme Court has yet to issue its opinion of Proposition 8 which amended the state constitution to limit marriage to a man and a woman, thus overturning another opinion of the same court.  One of the challenges against 8 is that it would deny a protected minority equal protection, another constitutional requirement, and therefore is unconstitutional because not approved in a way that would require a supermajority.
We shall see how the court rules, but to me it should be at least as difficult to amend away constitutional rights as it is to pass a state budget. It makes no sense to let so few (Proposition 8 passed with nearly 52% majority, but only 62% of eligible voters voted, so it rights were taken away by 34% of all voters) take away any rights, much less amend any other part of the constitution.
Majorities should prevail on many issues, and that is how our system is designed. In my opinion, that even applies to most issues in the federal Senate and the filibuster rule should be sharply limited. But there are issues that are always important and that involve basic rights or long term effects on the public and for those some form of supermajority is both healthy and necessary.
We all know that the majority is wrong as often as it is right. In today’s over-stimulated information society, it is too easy to create false, temporary majorities through manipulation of media and distortions of reality. We need mechanisms to slow down the majority, but not entirely impede it.


  1. AustinRanter

    According to the founders, they’ve stated that the design of the Republic was intended for the process of enacting laws…and especially any changes to the Constitution to be a slow process. And for good reason. Actually, if one reads the Federalist Papers, it doesn’t take long to see the many cracks and loopholes that the Founders were clearly aware…and passed along that knowledge to future generations to attend. But, nay…they hasn’t been the case.

    We see tons of laws enacted to cover about every human behavior…and yet, it’s never enough for our State and Federal elected officials to conduct business as they’ve all swore to do.

    The business of making laws seem to be way more productive than the enforcement and oversight of all of our past and current laws. Smoke and mirrors is the game. What a great game to play for those who don’t want to be transparent and accountable for the many responsibilities that are enmeshed in all of the laws now on the books.

    Yes, people, places, and things change. And yes, it’s necessary to keep up with the changes…but when we know that original thought is rare…and especially rare among our politicians…well, it’s time that we hold our officials feet to the fire.

  2. gazelle1929

    There is a way around the filibuster rule that the Senate routinely refuses to consider: let them filibuster.

    The public opinion of Congress is at historic lows, but part of that may well be due to the fact that the majority almost always caves under just the threat of a filibuster.

    It appears to be to be a politically astute move to force the opposition into a filibuster; that in turn points out dramatically and very publicly the obstructionism which has prevented our legislature from acting time and time again. People no longer are willing to put up with such dare I say petty tactics. They want their legislators to act, not sit around stewing in a juice of bitter herbs, bitter by their own making.

  3. Warren

    “Pure Democracy is two wolves and a sheep deciding what’s for dinner.”
    I don’t remember who is originally credited with that observation.

    I’m on the side of requiring a super-majority to pass any legislation, particularly changes to a state’s or the federal constitution. Way too much mischief can be, and often is, created by narrow majorities. This is especially true with the increasing popularity of social engineering by legislation. We’re all potentially sheep in one way or another.


  4. adamrussell

    Its only a filibuster proof majority if he and everyone else votes on party lines.

  5. Elmo

    The U.S.Constitution gives each house the right to make its own rules so the Senate rule that a motion to limit debate requires a supermajority is presumably a valid one. However, the way it is currently employed is a farce. If someone doesn’t want to limit debate, then that person had better be ready to debate, not just show up for the vote and then leave.