Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Democracy in America

While we are supporting democratic movements for change in North Africa, we might want to pay some attention to the state of our democracy here at home. In California, for example, talks between Governor Brown and Republican legislators broke down yesterday, over the Republicans' refusal to allow the people to vote on a package of tax measures, that the Governor and the legislative majority support as part of a plan to balance the state's budget. Why does the minority have this power? Because we have a 2/3 requirement for raising taxes in the state legislature. The minority take full advantage of their political power to demand additional concessions in return for going along even with the possibility that a referendum of the electorate will support a tax increase. In this case, their demands, at least for the moment, are too much for the majority. It is hard for me to see this intransigent position as anything other than a slap in the face to the principle of democracy. What reason can the minority of the legislature have for refusing even to let the people vote? That they, the minority, must know better what the people want than both the legislative majority and the people themselves?

In Congress, Republicans control a solid majority of the House of Representatives, but are still a minority in the Senate (even before considering that most Senate business now seems to demand a super-majority). This majority in one chamber knows it cannot work its will on the other chamber, or obtain the president's signature on any legislation it wants to pass, but nevertheless is threatening to shut down the entire government if they cannot have their way on spending cuts.

It's not my point to debate the merits of whether we need more spending cuts or tax increases or a bit of both (though for the record I actually enjoy debating those issues). This is not primarily a policy blog. This is more of a process blog. And what I would like to see as a matter of process is more respect for the process of democracy, even if that means that one side doesn't always get its way.

This tendency to disrespect democracy is not confined to the right. Elements on the left are disgusted with the Obama administration because they did not close Guantanamo, or did not enact a single payer health care plan, or a number of other grievances. These elements are so enamored of their own policy preferences that they completely ignore the democratic process. They evidently think the administration could still just close Guantanamo even though Congress has expressly forbidden that any funds be spent to house these prisoners anywhere else. They think the President could have gotten Senators like Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln to go along with a more liberal health care bill by what, . . . torture perhaps?

It also has to be acknowledged that the recent uprisings in Wisconsin, in which the Democratic minority fled the state to prevent a vote, and protesters swarmed the Capitol to attempt to intimidate the state legislature from restricting union collective bargaining rights, could be seen as anti-democratic. In that situation, however, at least the protesters were attempting to bring popular opinion to their side, and it does appear that the majority of voters (contrary to their expressed preferences in the election several months previously), support the protesters' position, and may have the chance to impose their will in upcoming recall elections.

When we observe factions in other countries fighting over the future shape of their governments, as for example when the fledgling democracy in Iraq took months to form a government, it is easy for us to see that these factions need to form coalitions that reflect the will of the people, and that no faction should have its way in its entirety. We ought to think about applying these same principles at home.


  1. Cali is politics at its worst/best, depending on who you ask. In January 2011, a survey by the California Public Policy Institute found that only 18% of likely voters approve of the way the California Legislature is handling its job, while 68% disapprove. Right or wrong I am guessing not much has changed in the majority of voter's opinion today since 1978 when the 2/3 majority law to raise taxes was voted in place.

    I recall all the wheeling and dealing the Dems did in Washington with insurance companies and unions and such to get health care reform started; some out in the open, some behind closed doors. And since then we are seeing massive exemptions given to special interests. It is all part of politics, as unpalatable as it is at times. Maybe THIS IS the right time for California Dems to deal -- this time deal with the minority party who represents the majority opinion on pension cuts and a cap on future state spending.

    I think I already pay plenty in taxes; but, due to our enormous in state problems I would not complain about paying even more taxes if I thought dramatic cuts in excessive spending were also coming and that my money would be used more fairly/wisely.

  2. Joe, when everyone agrees there's no problem but when there is disagreement the idea behind 2/3rds majority is to force the two sides to talk and figure out a solution. I'm in favor of it and it works... eventually.

  3. I am not in favor of it. The party that holds power should not have to have a 2/3 majority to pass legislation. For many, many years a vote of 51, or the simple majority was the standard in the Senate.

    The obstructionists continue to use gimmicks to stop legislation. The repubs. also use the trick of keeping legislation off the floor. That is not governing--that is playing politics.

    Could you tell me some of the legislation that has passed in the last 2.5 years by a super majority? I am only aware of the treaty with Russia and supreme court nominations.

  4. Dorothy, the 2/3 rule applies in the California legislature since Proposition 13, and only applies to tax increases. What that means is that the people who are against tax increases have twice as much political power as people who are in favor of tax increases.

    The super majority in the Senate is something else. That results from the increased use of the filibuster in recent years, to the point where you now have to have a cloture vote on nearly every piece of important legislation. Practically every significant bill that passed Congress during the Obama administration, including health care reform of course, but also financial reform and the stimulus bill (those are probably the three most important bills passed during this presidency) all had to have a 60 vote majority in the Senate to pass, because all of them were filibustered by the minority.

  5. I sent this blog post to Harry Reid, hoping he would allow the Senate to vote on the McConnell amendment. I think it might help move him.

  6. If you sent Harry Reid my blog post on democracy, you should also send him the blog post I did arguing that you can't leave the issue of whether carbon dioxide is a pollutant up to a vote.

    I do not favor voting on scientific issues, only policy issues.