Congress suffers from the 'tyranny of the minority'

June 01, 1994|By Arthur S. Flemming and Ray Marshall

MANY Americans think the primary cause of gridlock in Congress is the inability of a majority to agree on action. The real problem is more basic.

In the Senate, majority rule is becoming the exception rather than the rule.

Week after week, we see as many as 59 of the 100 senators ready to act on legislation -- to pass or defeat it. But Senate rules permit a minority of 41 or fewer to filibuster -- to prevent the majority from voting at all. To stop a filibuster, 60 votes are needed.

A minority -- sometimes one senator -- can demand ransom in exchange for providing the 60th vote; often, the price is either watered-down legislation or "pork."

Today, once a filibuster is announced -- no speeches are necessary -- the Senate takes up other business until deals can be struck for the 60 votes.

The threat of a filibuster affects nearly every issue, forcing dilution and deal-making even before bills are introduced. On May 17, it led to the government's giveaway sale of Nevada land containing gold worth $10 billion to a Canadian mining company for only $9,765.

This year in an 11-day period filibusters delayed or weakened the Federal Workforce Restructuring Act, National Competitiveness Act and the Goals 2000 education bill.

In 1993, they blocked, delayed or altered majority action on the Brady gun control bill and bills dealing with jobs (economic stimulus), national service, voter registration, and environmental and campaign finance reforms.

The Framers wrote a Constitution that protected minorities in many ways, but they insisted on majority rule in Congress.

As Alexander Hamilton explained in "The Federalist": "If the majority, in order that something may be done, must conform to the views of the minority, the smaller number will overrule the greater. Hence, tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good."

Even after senators discovered they could filibuster to circumvent the intent of the Constitution, most of them respected the distinction between opposing legislation and obstructing democracy, and reserved their filibusters for extraordinary matters.

Since 1990, senators have had to attempt to end filibusters 89 times -- an average of 22 times a year -- compared to fewer than one attempt a year from 1917 through 1967 and just over 10 a year from 1968 to 1989. Today's filibuster epidemic means that in effect the Senate needs nearly as many votes to pass legislation (60) as it does to override a veto, enact a constitutional amendment or impeach a president (67).

Americans may differ over the details of health care reform, how to combat violence and protect the environment and strengthen families.

But few differ on respect for that bedrock principle of democracy, majority rule.

As advisory committee members of Action, Not Gridlock!, a new nonpartisan organization concerned with effective democracy, we urge Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals tell all senators to respect majority rule and to give the Senate back its right to vote.

Arthur S. Flemming, a Republican, is a former secretary of health, Education and Welfare. Ray Marshall, a Democrat, is a former secretary of labor.

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