Friday, June 25, 2010

Majority Rule Redux

An extension of unemployment benefits failed yesterday, because it is supported by a mere 57% of Senators.

I don't pretend to know whether extending unemployment benefits is really a good idea or not. Paul Krugman keeps saying that we need more of just this kind of government spending now, and he's got a Nobel prize in economics, so I'm inclined to agree with him. But it is at least a priori possible that we have reached the point where it's time to worry more about the deficit than about the recovery, and deciding which side is right is not my area of expertise.

But what I do know is this: our political system is broken, and the filibuster rule in the Senate is the chief culprit.

It's absurd that something supported by 57% of our elected representatives can't get legislatively passed. These days, if an individual candidate gets 57% of the vote in an election, that's a big, solid win. So why can't policies supported by 57% of our elected representatives get enacted?

Health care reform, ultimately enacted with the aid of the Senate's "reconciliation" rule (which doesn't permit filibusters), showed how efficient Congress can be when it isn't bound by an absurd supermajority requirement. The House of Representatives passed a series of fixes to the health care reform bill, the Senate (by a healthy 56-43 majority) adopted them with just a couple of tiny changes, and the House agreed to the changes -- all within a week!

Imagine where we could be if the Senate needed only a majority to pass any legislation. Not just these unemployment benefits, but financial reform, climate change legislation, energy policy reform, and probably even immigration reform could all be accomplished already.

Maybe Congress would enact good legislation, maybe not. Things could be a lot better because Harry Reid wouldn't have to agree to outrageous special deals to buy those last few votes. Things could be worse because the majority would go out of control. But things would get done. And if the people didn't like what got done, they could vote for someone else. That's got to be better than what we have now.

Maybe filibusters made sense at some earlier stage in our nation's history. They might have been OK in past days when there was a gentlemen's agreement to use filibusters only on occasions of great moment. But now that they are used every day, on every kind of legislation or nomination, they are a fatal impediment to basic governance. The filibuster rule must go.


Peter said...

Professor, it's a mistake to agree with someone merely because they have a Nobel Prize. Otherwise you would agree with Yasser Arafat.

Peter said...

Perhaps (and I'm not at all sure about this) changing the status quo should require more than just a bare majority.

After all, if we make it possible that a bare majority of 51% is sufficient to change existing legislation, we might create a topsy-turvy world of pass and repeal, pass and repeal.

As lawyers, you and I both know that some level of certainty in the law is essential to the smooth running of society.

All you need do is look at the uncertainty surrounding the estate tax to see what I mean.

In any case, you might want to be careful what you wish for.

Come November, if the Republicans, with whom you almost always disagree, have 51 seats in the Senate and want to repeal Obamcare and pass tax cuts for the rich, you might find yourself pining for that horrible old supermajority rule.

Anonymous said...

Why are you so disturbed with the filibuster rule? It is readily circumvented with 'reconciliation', as you point out. It's a non-issue.

Senator Reid is doing the country a great disservice by not using it at every filibuster threat to get important things done, such as the unemployment compensation extension, and comprehensive illegal immigration reform.