Friday, September 28, 2007

The bad news: Just 3 percent of our eligible voters have the power "to stop almost anything" in the Senate. The good news: We can work around this.

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"Using Census figures, Geoghegan discovers that the 11 percent of Americans living in the least populated states have enough Senate votes--41--to sustain a filibuster. Yes, 89 percent of the population may support a policy, but 11 percent of the population has the senators to block that policy's enactment. . . .

"Lawmakers trying to keep their jobs only need support from a majority of those who turn out to vote. In those 21 least populated states with filibuster power, that majority is typically about 7 million voters, based on turnout data. That's just 3 percent of America's total voting-age population wielding enough Senate representation to stop almost anything."

--David Sirota, in his latest syndicated column, "Tyranny of the Tiny Minority"

It would be nice, for once, to have some good news about our electoral process.

No, I don't have any good news. However, short of that, maybe we can settle for the occasional bit of new news. Taken by itself, it's just one more piece of bad news, of course, but just maybe, by increasing our understanding of our electoral process, it can enable us to find some creative ways around it.

"Wondering why Congress rarely passes anything the public wants?" David Sirota asks in his new column. "Then grab Thomas Geoghegan's 1999 memoir, The Secret Lives of Citizens."
As Geoghegan [right] notes, in the 100-member Senate, just 41 "no" votes kills most legislation with a filibuster. You might think that if 41 percent of our representatives oppose a bill, maybe it should die. After all, civics class taught us that the Senate is supposed to protect the voice of a significant minority.

But here is what civics class didn't teach: With each state getting two senators regardless of population, 41 percent of the Senate often represents not a significant minority, but an infinitesimal one.

Using Census figures, Geoghegan discovers that the 11 percent of Americans living in the least populated states have enough Senate votes--41--to sustain a filibuster. Yes, 89 percent of the population may support a policy, but 11 percent of the population has the senators to block that policy's enactment. When you go further than Geoghegan and consider the election-focused mindset of politicians, you see the situation is even more absurd.

Lawmakers trying to keep their jobs only need support from a majority of those who turn out to vote. In those 21 least populated states with filibuster power, that majority is typically about 7 million voters, based on turnout data. That's just 3 percent of America's total voting-age population wielding enough Senate representation to stop almost anything.

To see how this works, consider what followed a July CBS News/New York Times poll that found 69 percent of Americans support Congress either enacting a timetable for troop withdrawals from Iraq or defunding the war completely. When the Senate voted on timetable legislation that month, 47 senators voted "no"--enough to filibuster.

Should we be surprised that a policy supported by more than two thirds of America drew opposition from almost half of the Senate? No, not when we consider the math.

I can't say I ever thought of it that way.

Of course, once you have thought of it that way, it's hard not to be even more tummy-numbingly discouraged than before you thought of it that way. You have some new appreciation for what we're up against, but you're not apt to break out the champagne for that.

Our David is less easily discouraged, of course, which is why I encourage everyone to read his presentation. He's already come up with two ways of making this knowledge work for progressives.

First, he looks for someplace other than Congress to work for change:
In the Karl Rove age of base politics, this Senate setup means that most domestic reforms will not come from D.C., no matter which party controls Congress or the presidency. Change will come instead from the arenas that are more democratic and have no filibuster: state legislatures.

This isn't wishful thinking. As energy, universal health care and consumer protection initiatives face Senate filibusters, legislatures are acting. For instance, California already passed one of the planet's most far-reaching clean energy mandates and may soon enact a universal health care plan. North Carolina passed predatory lending laws that are setting national standards. Such examples could fill a phone book.

Then, he sketches "a new strategy making the Senate's drawbacks the campaign's strength":
Specifically, Senate Democrats whine about not having 60 votes to pass Iraq-related legislation. They pretend they are innocent bystanders with no means to act, and some anti-war groups give the charade credence by echoing these excuses. Yet, if properly pressured, those Democrats might be able to muster 41 votes to stop war funding bills.

Well, it's a start. And I guess it beats just plain whining, 24/7.
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2 Comments:

At 8:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's all we've got left. Time to filibuster every g-d war funding bill comin down the pike.

 
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