The Myth of Majority Rule

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, laying the groundwork for the possibility of using reconciliation to ram a health care bill through Congress, put a different spin on the maneuver yesterday: “Majority rule, we call it.”

The “majority rule” talking point has has been gaining traction among liberals who have been on a long crusade against the filibuster in the Senate. Ezra Klein chimed in with this lesson:

[I]t’s always worth noting that the radical vision of filibuster opponents is … majority rule. The majority rule that Congress used until very recently, the majority rule that is explained to children when they learn about the American government, and the majority rule that we use to run, well, everything else. Scott Brown, for instance, got 51 percent of the votes in Massachusetts, not 60 percent. In fact, you never hear anyone say that we’re a more polarized country now, so we should subject elections to a 60 percent requirement. Majority rule works just fine, thanks.

Ezra is right that children are taught about “majority rule.” But then they grow up to be big boys and big girls, and they learn that the reality is much more complicated.  They’re taught that we live in a republic rather than a pure democracy, and that our founders put a number of protections in place to make sure that the majority didn’t trample over the minority. And the founders also made it intentionally difficult for sudden, sweeping, change to get implemented in the heat of passion.

If the founders wanted majority rule, they would have created a parliamentary system, with everything decided by the House, where representation is based on population. Instead, they created something called the Senate, where lots of smaller states with less people in them could get equally represented, and be in a position to block objectionable legislation being pushed by the big populous states.  They also inserted the idea of a supermajority in the Constitution — for instance, two-thirds requirements for amending the Constitution or overriding a presidential veto.

In the Federalist Papers, James Madison wrote repeatedly about the need to protect minority rights. In Federalist No. 10,  he addressed complaints “that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.”

In Federalist No. 51, Madison wrote: “It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure.”

While the filibuster was never in the Constitution, the practice is as old as Congress istelf. “In the early years of Congress, representatives as well as senators could filibuster,” the U.S. Senate website explains. “As the House of Representatives grew in numbers, however, revisions to the House rules limited debate. In the smaller Senate, unlimited debate continued on the grounds that any senator should have the right to speak as long as necessary on any issue.”

The rule of cutting off debate by invoking “cloture” didn’t emerge until 1917, when it required a two-thirds majority. The threshold wasn’t lowered to 60 votes until 1975.

And while Ezra complains that the use of the filibuster has increased over the decades, it’s also worth noting that the existing entitlement programs were imposed by supermajorities. The Social Security Act received 77 votes in the Senate and the legislation creating Medicare and Medicaid passed with 68.

If liberals are genuinely interested in majority rule, however, instead of focusing on legislative shortcuts, maybe they should be concerned about the fact that just 30 percent of Americans want Congress to pass a health care bill similar to the one currently being pushed by Democrats.