Thursday, March 4, 2010

Simple Majority

Some years back when I served in the Congress I was told that for every complex, complicated problem there is a simple, easy answer. And invariably that answer is wrong.

Whenever I hear the President or Administration spokesmen talking about passing their health bill with a "simple up and down vote" or a "simple majority" I am reminded of what I was told years ago.

The idea that this complicated, complex, expensive, backroom deal cluttered and massive health insurance reform would be jammed through the Senate using arcane and inappropriate procedures to overcome Senate rules is bound to be wrong. The rules of the Senate are meant to protect the country from precipitous and unwise actions. And even though the President is right that most Americans could care less about those rules, the fact is that every American should care deeply about the damage that can be done when the rules are not followed.

What we have here is a question that goes to the heart of how we govern ourselves. The forefathers recognized the difficulties in using representative government as the tool for public decision-making. They distrusted power. They had watched kings become tyrants and small groups of elites force unwanted policies on the citizenry. They wanted to assure within the Constitution that the will of the majority could be heard, but also that power elites within the government could not crush the aspirations of the populace with precipitous actions.

That distrust of power led them to create two houses of Congress, each with its own role within our governance system. The fact is the uniqueness of the two bodies often creates tension between them which is exactly what the forefathers intended. The House of Representatives is structured to permit the majority to prevail. Its rules and precedents are meant to allow the majority party to get its way everyday. On the other hand, the Senate is structured to assure that any measure which comes before it has many difficult hurdles to clear in order to assure that no President or runaway legislative majority can do irreparable harm. Among those hurdles is the requirement for a super majority agreement to proceed to debate controversial matters.

About a quarter of a century ago there was decision made to modify the Senate rules to allow more expeditious treatment of budget related issues. The super majority requirement was lifted for matters relating strictly to budgetary issues. This procedure was never intended to be prostituted into a scheme for making major policy decisions which could not obtain the necessary super majority clearance. In fact, the legislative intent as expressed at the time of adoption made quite clear that the budget exceptions were to be very narrow in scope.

It is that procedure which the Obama Administration seeks to exploit to pass a massive bill that will have dramatic impact on one-seventh of the entire national economy. They are attempting to thwart the will of the majority of the citizenry with this power grab and are consciously destroying one the safeguards our forefathers provided in constitutional government.

If the Senate becomes a place where "simple majorities" can do politically popular things without the kind of contemplation and adjudication that the forefathers saw as necessary to protect against the abuse of power, one of the bulwarks of democracy will have been breached. History is replete with instances where freedom is destroyed by those whose momentary agendas are more important to them than the responsibility to accomplish their goals within the rules. History is replete with simple majorities taking democracy from freedom to the likes of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. History teaches us that the slow, cumbersome procedures of the U.S. Senate are decried by both political parties when they are seeking to push through their agendas. But history also teaches us that policy which survives that process of Senate deliberation is usually the better for it.

Democratic governance is a messy, cumbersome, complicated and complex process. It is not amenable to simple solutions. The simple shortcut, the simple majority, is most likely to be wrong. And the pathway toward taking that simple shortcut well could be destructive of one the foundations that keeps us free.

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