When a Majority Isn't Enough

January 25, 1995|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO — Chicago. -- Our constitution has many checks and balances -- too many, some have thought in the past.

One House of Congress can block another; the president can veto what is passed by both Houses.

But the Republican Contract With America would add another check, one not decreed by the framers of our government -- a three-fifths majority vote needed for the passage of new taxes.

This reflects the mood of the Republicans, who want to cripple government, to take freedom of maneuver away from our representatives. It is the same spirit that wants to limit congressional control of the purse by means of a balanced-budget amendment and a line-item veto given to the president.

James Madison said that especially high majorities offend the principle of majority rule -- which is why the Constitution reserved such ''super-majorities'' for very special cases -- for overriding a veto, confirming a treaty, impeaching an officer, expelling a member from Congress or amending the Constitution.

All these cases are not ordinary legislation. A majority of electors has voted a president in, so a super-majority is needed to expel him (or a member of Congress) in a procedure that resembles a trial more than an election or a normal act of legislating.

To amend the Constitution, which was adopted unanimously by the states, is not ordinary lawmaking either. The super-majorities required both in Congress and in the states for amending the Constitution are a compromise between the charter unanimity and a statutory majority.

A treaty with another country commits the nation in ways that would be ineffectual if any simple shift in the vote could overthrow it. No other people would trust long-term commitments from America if its treaty ties were not rendered relatively stable.

We cannot swear to stick with treaty terms in perpetuity. But we can assure the other party that no simple shift of votes from one Congress to another will make it easy to jettison foreign commitments.

But for all other matters the Constitution assumes a majority vote -- which is why the vice president is authorized to break an impasse when the Senate vote is tied.

Hamilton described this provision (in Federalist No. 68) as the ''definitive resolution'' of a legislative majority.

Madison opposed the idea of a three-fifths requirement for a quorum, since a minority could block action -- as happened in the Pennsylvania legislature during the pre-constitutional period. This is a principle just as valid for a legislative vote as for a legislative quorum.

The super-majority idea is opposed to the Constitution and to majority rule. It enshrines a mood of the moment in our lasting charter. It invites people with other legislative priorities to tinker with the Constitution -- perhaps to require a super-majority for declaring war, or cutting capital gains, or limiting a speaker's outside income.

This is a bad idea, keeping company with many other bad ideas in the Contract With America.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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