We have been through the sorry spectacle of the Senate being held hostage by a minority of its members, via the filibuster and other "rules". Indeed in much of its business, a single senator may "hold" action indefinitely. It is thus not only a dysfunctional, but also an unconstitutional, body. Much of this derives from the wish of each member to be a prima dona and mini-president, but for the institution as a whole and for the country, it is a disaster.
The current Republican hostage-taking over Obamacare, "spending", and the misunderstood debt puts a spotlight on the same phenomenon in the House of Representatives, where a straight vote would pass both the budget and the debt ceiling, but the Republicans deny such a vote due to their "Hastert rule", which renders the House both dysfunctional and unconstitutional. This self-imposed rule uses the procedural powers of the speakership to deny any bill a vote unless it has majority support of Republican members. Not a majority of the House at large, but only of the Republicans.
The founders didn't even think it worth mentioning in their masterwork- the constitution- that each legislative body would pass bills based on a majority vote. It was so blindingly obvious and implicit that only a dolt would imagine that other rules might be brought into play. But here we are.
What the constitution does say on the matter is:
"Every Bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a law, be presented to the President of the United States: If he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it, with his Objections to that House in which it shall have originated, who shall enter the Objections at large on their Journal, and proceed to reconsider it. If after such Reconsideration two thirds of that House shall agree to pass the Bill, it shall be sent, together with the Objections, to the other House, by which it shall likewise be reconsidered, and if approved by two thirds of that House, it shall become a Law."
"Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behaviour, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member."
Here, as in only a very few other cases, super-majority requirements are mentioned, clearly because it is so rare relative to the default case of majority rule.
It is unimaginable that the founders would have accepted the kind of "rules" or proceedings that both the Senate and House have since lashed themselves to, requiring special or super-majorities for any action but those explicitly mentioned in the constitution. They were opposed to party politics in any case, but to see our great deliberative bodies so hamstrung not only by partisan rancor, but by insidious "rules" by which partisan minorities can stifle public action, would be most maddening. The constitution they constructed already had so many divided powers, elite-friendly voting mechanisms, and brakes on precipitate action that this extra degree of dysfunction is, frankly, sadomasochistic. Or sclerotic, take your pick.
Imagine if the House leadership decided on a rule that Speaker Boehner gets one vote and all others get none. They can make their own rules, right? That would certainly simplify matters, and even promote expeditious decisionmaking. The bounds on these internal Senate and House rules seem to be whatever they can get away with without raising too many suspicions of unconstitutionality. And their point is generally to give power to the powerful, instead of promoting deliberation and the equal distribution of power in what were clearly constructed to be one-man one-vote bodies.
We need to find a way out of this mess. The Republican party may be doing the nation a favor by immolating before our eyes, thus perhaps losing the next election. But a more durable way to address these legislative dysfunctions might be for the President or others with standing to take the matter to the Supreme court and have them put some bounds on the internal procedures with which the congressional bodies can steal the rights of the majority. Even within the now-rabidly conservative court, the clear intent of the founders should not pass completely unnoticed.
Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist #78:
"If it be said that the legislative body are themselves the constitutional judges of their own powers, and that the construction they put upon them is conclusive upon the other departments, it may be answered, that this cannot be the natural presumption, where it is not to be collected from any particular provisions in the Constitution. It is not otherwise to be supposed, that the Constitution could intend to enable the representatives of the people to substitute their will to that of their constituents. It is far more rational to suppose, that the courts were designed to be an intermediate body between the people and the legislature, in order, among other things, to keep the latter within the limits assigned to their authority"
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- Economic and/or political quote of the week, from Bill Mitchell, quoting Mason Gaffney:
"... the American education system had been corrupted especially in the era of secret ballot and direct democracy where 'voters could no longer be bought … they had to be brainwashed' and the device chosen was 'Neo-classical Economics, which blurred all distinctions between producers and rentiers'."