Yesterday a majority of the U.S. Senate voted to strengthen background checks at gun shows and crack down on “straw purchases” of guns which allows criminals to get weapons through other people. Yet according to the anti-democratic rules of the Senate — which require a 60-vote super-majority for anything to go ahead — neither of these amendments will move forward (as well as some other more conservative measures that progressives do not like).
News reports in the aftermath will talk of the President’s “failure” to get gun violence reduction measures passed but in reality this is nothing more than another by-product of a dysfunctional U.S. constitutional system that gives more weight to votes in opposition to measures than to those in support.
The theoretical defense of majority rule rests on the simple proposition that under a system of guaranteed political equality, one person’s vote is equal to every other person’s vote and the side with the most votes wins in a given election or legislative tally. Under the current abused filibuster rules in the Senate, this reasonable logic is replaced by a system of unequal voting power where proponents of a particular amendment must find additional votes to advance the bill while opponents must simply muster a plurality to block the measure. Thus, measures like the background check provisions fail to move forward even when they garner the support of a majority of senators as they did yesterday.
Since, the courts have basically ruled that the Senate is free to adopt whatever rules it wants under Article 1, Section 5 of the U.S. Constitution — as Ian Milhiser has written about here on TP — let’s hypothetically reverse the current arrangements and see how it might work. (This is a thought experiment, not an actual proposal.)
There’s nothing unconstitutional (apparently) with the Senate adopting rules that say it takes 60 votes to prevent – not allow – a vote on a given amendment. This would mean legislative amendments with only plurality support would regularly advance in the Senate. The public outcry would be deafening as the ideological measures of a minority — some potentially good and many bad — flew through the Senate and got attached to all sorts of legislation with no recourse for the majority. Conservatives in a hypothetical majority would go ballistic as a minority of progressives could attach single payer health care, increased taxes on the rich, massive Pentagon cuts, and drug legalization onto legislative measures that would then allow these measures to go forward for a majority vote. Conversely, a progressive majority would be apoplectic about conservatives attaching provisions to bills to implement a flat tax, eliminate abortion rights, or privatize Social Security and Medicare. The American public would have little recourse in elections as their votes would be essentially meaningless in the face of Senate rules that favor a motivated minority over the majority.
Sounds ludicrous, right? But this is not unlike the current situation in the U.S. Senate. Under real rules, not hypothetical ones, the votes of a minority in opposition to a measure count more than the votes of those in favor in determining which ideas go forward, even when the pro-votes constitute a majority of the legislative body.
Under what principles of democracy is this at all justifiable?