There seems to be this notion that we’re a democracy. It gets taught to schoolkids and passed from parents to children. It is discussed in coffee houses, bars and even churches.
It is a lie. We are not a democracy. We never have been. And I pray to God we never will be.
But if a handful of congressmen get their way, we’ll be inching in that direction. Four Democrats from the House of Representatives — with the help of a nonpartisan outfit named Common Cause — have filed suit in US District Court to end the Senate practice known as the filibuster, saying it usurps the “principle of majority rule.”
A filibuster is a tool used by the minority party in the Senate to refuse to allow a bill to be voted on — stating that it still needs debated — unless 60 members of the Senate vote to end discussions (cloture) and vote on the bill at hand. In essence, the minority party (with 40 or more members) can prevent any measure from being voted on as long as they keep debating said issue.
I get what the congressmen are trying to do and it’s admirable in a sense. They feel that the wheels of government have ground to a halt because of a tendency to abuse the filibuster and they want to grease those wheels with some democracy.
To advance their point, there were 16 filibusters from 1840 to 1900. That’s one every four years. There was about one per year in the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s. And then the numbers started rising. In 2009 and 2010 there were 130.
It’s worth noting that prior to 1917, there was no process to stop a filibuster. And until 1975, a cloture vote required two-thirds of senators, seven more than today.
It would seem reasonable to assume that the process of the filibuster is being used more than “intended.” What was once a part of the system of checks and balances has become a burdensome process preventing any real progress from occurring.
Except that assumption would also assume that “progress” is a good thing and that the “principle of majority rule” is a true tenet upon which this nation was founded. But as I’ve already said, it wasn’t.
“Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner,” according to the author James Bovard.
And that’s precisely why the filibuster needs to remain in effect. The sheep need protection from the wolves.
Of course, in years past, the Senate was a much more thoughtful and responsible body where moderates from both parties outnumbered the radicals and everyone worked together to compose bills they knew would pass. In fact, the Senate was designed to be just that. That’s why there’s only 100 of them. And that’s why (originally) they were appointed by their respective states, chosen not for party affiliation but for their ability to work together and come up with reasonable solutions to the nation’s ills.
In this manner, the Senate also was designed to temper the more whimsical tones of the House. But the 17th Amendment screwed that all up and gave the people to power to directly elect senators.
The reason filibusters have increased exponentially over the past few decades is because the bills put forth in the Senate have become less and less reasonable and more and more partisan. It could actually be offered, then, that the filibuster’s design is working exactly as intended, preventing a tyranny of the majority.
Which is exactly why we don’t live under “majority rule,” but rather a complex design created by our founders to protect us from ourselves. Because in the end, we’re both wolves and sheep.
Scott Leffler is a self-proclaimed Constitutional scholar. He’s also a ginger. But we don’t talk about that. Follow his Tweets @scottleffler.