Majority Rule in the United States Senate

The New York Times editorializes in favor of Democrats taking a good hard look at doing what they can on health care through the budget reconciliation process. Sounds good to me. They characterize this as “Majority Rule on Health Care Reform” which would, in fact, be nice. But when it comes to the United States Senate it is always worth recalling that majority rule is a funny concept.

If you attribute to each Senator half the population of the state he or she represents, then the Democrats’ two Senators from California, two from New York, one from Florida, two from Illinois, two from Pennsylvania, one from Ohio, two from Michigan, one from North Carolina, two from New Jersey, two from Virginia, two from Washington, two from Massachusetts, one from Indiana, one from Missouri, and two from Maryland together represent 51.125 percent of the American people. That’s just 25 Senators. There are an additional 35 Democratic Party Senators. Legislation by “majority rule” would mean something less like “50 Senators get to make laws” than “the House of Representatives gets to make laws.” And keep in mind that for all the problems with Barack Obama’s strategy and all the perfidy of the right-wing and all the fecklessness of the media and all the ineffectualness of the Democratic Party leadership, if we operated on a majority rules system of government we’d be having a very different conversation. Absent the Senate, the American Climate and Energy Security Act would be law. And absent the Senate we would have a health care bill financed through taxes on the wealthy providing subsidies for families up to 400 percent of the poverty line, and creating a somewhat robust public option.

Now, obviously, that’s not the country we live in and everyone knew the Senate existed before we started down this road. But it’s absolutely crucial to understand that our political institutions are shaping these outcomes much more heavily than are individual tactical decisions.