A clear majority of Americans support a whole host of “left” positions: tougher gun laws, higher taxes on the rich, full rights for gays, access to contraception and abortion services, the decriminalization of marijuana and other drugs, increased access to higher education for the children of illegal immigrants, tougher penalties for Wall Street crony capitalism, an end to oil subsidies, a public option in the new healthcare law, stricter environmental regulations, just about every issue that comprises the center-left spectrum in America.
The question naturally arises as to why these policies have not been enacted under a Democratic President, and in fact are currently being rolled back in many parts of the country.
The answer is frustratingly simple: America’s governing institutions are (small “c”) conservative by design, which in this day and age means that center-right institutions are governing a center-left nation.
The Senate is the poster child of conservative institutions. Ironically, though it was designed to protect small states from the tyranny of the majority, today’s it’s become the vehicle for the minority to tyrannize the majority. The Senate routinely prevents popular bills with widespread public support from becoming law. Extreme rightwing members from small rural states can band together and easily block the will of the majority. In fact, 40 Senators who represent as little as 10% of the population can block the will of the majority—and with six-year terms, these same Senators can remain in power across different Administrations without even having to face reelection.
An example of this power occurred just last week when Republicans filibustered a bill to remove a small fraction of the tens of billion in tax breaks received by the oil industry (Chris Hayes had a great segment on this topic). Oil companies are almost universally loathed in America, and there is not an economist or policy expert of note who believes these tax breaks are good policy; even right-leaning institutions such as Cato and The Heritage Foundation oppose the breaks, and yet they continue. If the Senate were ruled by majority vote, like the House, the measure would have passed. Instead, the subsidies persist.
It is instructive to recognize how much would be law today if the Senate operated by majority rule: a cap and trade bill for greenhouse gas emissions, the DREAM act, a public option for the Affordable Care Act, increased infrastructure spending, higher taxes on the rich, significantly stronger financial regulation than what’s in the Dodd-Frank bill. More than 50 votes exist for all of these policies, with some even in the high 50s. (Remember, too, that even a Senate operating on majority rule would still be giving low-population states far more say, per-capita, than large population states.)
Can anything be done?
While many on the left are too risk-averse to recommend abolishing the Senate filibuster, this is in fact what’s needed. The fear, of course, is that if Republicans got a Senate majority, they could then vote to undo many of the left’s most popular policies—but this isn’t sufficient reason to oppose the filibuster’s elimination.
Allowing the majority to govern and enact its priorities is what elections are for. Democrats should relish the day that Republicans attempt to end Medicare, privatize Social Security, or roll back gay rights; they would face an electoral backlash like nothing ever witnessed. Democracy may be messy, but that’s how democracy should operate. We’re stuck right now in the worst of all worlds—the party in power can’t enact its agenda, and a large portion of the public blames that same party for not getting more done.
The filibuster can be abolished with a simple majority vote on the first day of a new Congress. Nothing in the Constitution requires the filibuster rules that currently operate in the Senate. In my estimation, the Democrats made a grave error when they failed to take this step in 2011 (because they feared a GOP majority in 2013). I have news for the Democrats: the next time a Republican wins the presidency and the Congress, the GOP will vote to end the Senate filibuster anyway, so nothing has been gain by forestalling the inevitable.
Changing the Constitution to make American institutions more democratic is a long-term project worth pursuing, but in the short term getting the Senate to vote by majority rule must be a priority.
The tensions and contradictions of a center-left country being governed by center-right institutions have always been problematic. Right now, these tensions and contradictions are threatening America’s prosperity and its trajectory. American voters have the frustrating feeling that their voices don’t matter, and to a large extent they’re right.
Running the Senate run by majority rule wouldn’t completely change things, but it would make a huge difference. Just look back at that list above of all of the things that could’ve been passed in the last few years if 51 votes were enough (or even 50, since Vice-President Biden would have cast the tie-breaking vote).