• Change, at long last
    November 23,2013

    Hooray for the U.S. Senate for taking a stand on behalf of democracy.

    The Democrats voted 52-48 to change Senate rules so that the minority can no longer halt presidential appointments to Cabinet-level positions or to the federal bench. Supreme Court justices could still be blocked by a minority.

    “Tyranny of the majority” was the cry that went up from some Republicans. But even school kids deciding rules for games on the playground know that “majority rules” is a fundamental tenet of democracy. Since when did it begin to make sense that the majority should not rule? If the majority does not rule, that means the minority has the power. And there are other words to describe rule by the minority. One of them is oligarchy.

    Tyranny of the majority is a useful concept to keep in mind in some instances. The majority does not have the right to deprive the minority of constitutional rights. Thus, a minority of one has the right to free speech. Majorities do not have the right to deprive racial minorities of the right to vote. The tyranny of the majority prevailed in the American South during the days of Jim Crow.

    But the ordinary business of government must be conducted by a majority empowered to take action. Otherwise, the voters’ election choices will have been thwarted. But that isn’t what has been happening in the Senate, especially in recent years.

    The Senate’s filibuster rules allow an individual senator to put a hold on action. And they allow a minority of 41 to prolong endlessly debate on a bill or an appointment. To break a filibuster, senators must gather 60 votes to halt debate.

    There is a bit of romance attached to the filibuster. A determined senator can make a principled stand to call into question what the majority is determined to do. But during the administration of President Obama, Republican senators have used the filibuster, or the threat of a filibuster, to block routine action or appointments. There are more than twice the number of judicial appointments awaiting action now than there were at this point in either of the Bush presidencies.

    Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was reluctant for the Democrats to make this rules change, knowing that it would provoke the Republicans to new levels of obstructionism. But wait. The Republicans have already reached levels of obstruction that could hardly be surpassed. As Obama learned in the recent government shutdown showdown, the bullying tactics of the Republicans can be countered only if Democrats are willing to confront them.

    Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned that the Democrats would rue the day they changed the rules when they find themselves in the minority. Let them rue. If the American people elect a Republican Senate and Republican president, that majority ought to have the chance to present legislation and to make appointments, subjecting their actions to the customary debate and winning approval by the vote of a majority.

    Republicans have shown themselves to be loyal primarily to the interests of the wealthiest individuals and corporations of America. Public opinion polls show that their agenda is generally not supported by a majority because their policies work against the interests of the majority. It stands to reason, therefore, that they would cling to parliamentary tricks that empower the minority to continue to lord it over the majority. The filibuster is one of the oligarch’s favorite tricks.

    Republicans accuse Obama of trying to ram through his agenda. Well, yes. He was elected president, and he wants to conduct the business of the presidency on behalf of the people who elected him. That is not a radical notion. It is democracy. For them to whine that he wants to get his way brands them as poor losers. If they want to make a case that they, the minority party (in the Senate), ought to run the show, then it will be interesting to see if the American people will agree. Their obstruction at this point has stuck Congress with a 9 percent approval rating. The Democrats were right: It was time for a change.

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