Tyranny Of the Minority

Jack L. Levin

November 03, 1990|By Jack L. Levin

PRESIDENT BUSH'S 16 vetoes of legislation supported by a majority of Congress raises questions about the balance of powers in our democracy. His veto of the civil-rights bill was sustained by one vote in the Senate -- 66 to 34 to override.

The veto (it means ''I forbid'') has come full-circle from its original intent. In ancient Rome it was used by the tribune to protect the plebes from harm and injustice by the patricians. I think it was used thus also 2,000 years later by Franklin D. Roosevelt against old-guard fossils obstructing the New Deal.

President Bush often uses his veto to protect corporate patricians against rambunctious plebes and middle-class folks. By sustaining his vetoes, minority Republicans in Congress exercise unjustifiable power over legislation.

In Colonial America, the absolute veto power over local laws, as wielded by the king and his governors, provoked Maryland burgesses to refuse to recognize any veto right. Said one: ''He has refused to Assent to Laws, the most wholesale and `f necessary to the public good.''

Nevertheless, the founding fathers, after debate, designed their new system of checks and balances to enable the president to oppose ''the tyranny of a legislative majority'' and to give him time to appeal to the public. Article I, Section 7 of the Constitution does not mention ''veto,'' only presidential ''objections.''

Resistance to the two-thirds requirement to override developed soon after adoption of the Constitution. Several attempts were made to permit override of a veto by a simple majority vote of both houses. Such efforts need to be resumed. The veto provision was never intended to give the president the sweeping power of an autocrat and assure the tyranny of the minority.

No matter how isolated from majority opinion, the president sits in the driver's seat. With the single exception of 1975, the year after President Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, there has hardly been a time when the president, with a little arm-twisting, could not muster his sustaining one-third bloc. The Democratic majority's batting average was .033 -- 75 overrides in 2,260 vetoes -- up to Mr. Ford's time. Under Mr. Bush, the majority has batted .000 -- not much to cheer about if you're rooting for power to the people.

If a two-thirds vote is needed to oppose the president, why not a two-thirds popular vote to elect him? Conversely, if a simple majority of voters -- without the device of the Electoral College -- can make a president, why shouldn't a simple majority of Congress be sufficient to defeat fixed ideas that he insists on imposing on the disenfranchised majority?

Where is the balance of powers in this one-third majority rule?

Mr. Levin is a Baltimore business man.

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