Does the Filibuster Prevent “Tyranny of the Majority”?

Richard Arenberg of Brown University criticizes those who contend the filibuster is “undemocratic and unconstitutional.” According to Arenberg, “‘the possibility that senators elected from 21 states that may contain as little as 11 percent of the U.S. population [can have] an absolute veto power over bills, resolutions and presidential appointments supported by senators who represent 83 percent of the people of the United States'” is not necessarily alarming and certainly not unconstitutional. Those who suggest otherwise, he continues, “misrepresent . . . the founding fathers’ design of the Senate.”

 The founding fathers greatly feared the “tyranny of the majority” – and they created the Senate to avoid what they deemed the rule of the mob.

The Senate was the result of the “great compromise” at the 1787 Constitutional Convention, which shaped the body to represent the states. Each state has two senators regardless of its population size – an idea so important to the framers that the Constitution in Article V requires that “no State, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.” Therefore, changing the Senate’s composition would, in effect, require unanimous consent of the states, not the usual three-fourths needed to ratify a constitutional amendment.

With two senators representing each state, the idea that a Senate majority must somehow reflect a majority of the population is simply wrong. [More here.]

Mathew Yglesias of Slate Magazine responds:

. . . The whole thing hinges on the idea that filibustering defends minority interests and prevents the “tyranny of the majority.” But this is simply wrong. The problem of the tyranny of the majority is the problem that minority groups in society might see their interests trampled. But protecting the interests of the political party that lost the last election doesn’t achieve this goal.

Most people aren’t Jehovah’s Witnesses, and . . . you might see a proposal to trample on Jehovah’s Witnesses interests by banning them from knocking on doors. In this case, the filibuster would defend the interests of a minority group because it makes it harder to pass laws.

On the other hand, most people aren’t gay and some straight people think gay sex is immoral, so gay people may be subject to discrimination in employment and other venues. You might see a proposal to advance gay interests by banning employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In that case, the filibuster harms the interests of a minority group because it makes it harder to pass laws.

Which is to say that making it harder to pass laws simply makes it harder to pass laws. It has nothing in particular to do with majoritarianism or minority interests or anything else. It’s a status quo measure. To the extent that you think the status quo is great, then maybe you love a 60 vote threshold. Maybe you think it should be raised to 65 or 75 or 95. Or maybe instead of a bicameral legislature we should have a four-chamber legislature. It’s easy to think of new ways to make it harder to change the laws. But that’s the issue. Making it hard to change laws systematically preserves the advantages of whatever groups are advantaged by the status quo.

 

The Unequal Effects of Equal State Representation in the Senate

Adam Liptak of the New York Times offers an overview of recent research on the policy effects of equal state representation in the Senate:

The disproportionate power enjoyed in the Senate by small states is playing a growing role in the political dynamic on issues as varied as gun control, immigration and campaign finance. [more here]

 

Projected Effects of SNAP Funding Reductions

Dottie Rosenbaum of the (liberal / progressive) Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) summarizes a new CBPP report:

The 2009 Recovery Act’s temporary boost in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits ends on November 1, which will mean a benefit cut for each of the nearly 48 million SNAP recipients — most of whom live in households with children, seniors, or people with disabilities.

A household of three, such as a mother with two children, will lose $29 a month — a total of $319 for November 2013 through September 2014, the remaining 11 months of fiscal year 2014 (see chart). That equals about 16 meals a month for a family of three based on the cost of U.S. Agriculture Department’s “Thrifty Food Plan.” [More here]

UPDATE:

In Monday’s AJC, Benita Dodd of the (conservative) Georgia Public Policy Foundation wrote an oped supporting the cuts. While citing similar estimated effects of the cuts, she argues it is a step in the right direction:

… This restoration of benefits to their original status should not deteriorate into a political blame game. Both sides of the aisle have acknowledged the need to cut government spending: In June, the Democrat-led Senate approved legislation that included $4.5 billion in SNAP cuts. The Republican-led House last month approved a bill that would cut funding for SNAP by $40 billion over 10 years.

The good intentions of program supporters do not cancel out the need for individuals to escape poverty through jobs and economic opportunity. Unless and until Congress cuts back on spending and reaching into hardworking taxpayers’ pockets to fund dependency, the opportunity for economic growth that creates jobs in the private sector will not occur. Until and unless Congress acts to relieve the overbearing regulatory burdens, mandates and costs that are being imposed on businesses in this country, the kinds of jobs that can advance Americans out of poverty will not be created.

Washington needs to end the bickering over how many fish to feed the five thousand and step back so that the five thousand learn how to feed themselves the traditional American way – through a work ethic. [Read the whole thing here]

Should we use Geoengineering to Cool the Planet?

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to slow the pace of global warming. Humans could stop adding carbon-dioxide to the atmosphere. Or scientists could try to artificially cool the planet — say, by spraying reflective particles in the stratosphere to block (a small bit of) sunlight.

The first option is typically the only one that comes up in policy discussions. But climate scientist David Keith has long argued that we should start thinking seriously about both strategies. His new book, “A Case for Climate Engineering,” makes the argument at length.

It’s a highly controversial view. After all, solar geoengineering is fraught with risks. Things could go badly awry. And Keith is upfront about those dangers; indeed, he has called for an international moratorium on deployment until we understand the technology better. But geoengineering may be the best way to limit some of the damage from the carbon-dioxide we’ve already put in the atmosphere. At the very least, he says, scientists need to start researching the idea more thoroughly.

Keith, who left the University of Calgary in 2011 for a position at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Sciences, talked with me this week about his new book. . . .

The rest is available at WA Post’s Wonkblog.

Will Libertarians and Progressives Ever Form a “Liberaltarian” Alliance?

Zack Beauchamp doesn’t think so:

Unlike some progressives, I’m deeply sympathetic to the idea of a left-libertarian alliance. I like the libertarians line on the drug war, mass incarceration, civil liberties, corporate welfare, immigration, and restrictions on internet pornography and other infringements free speech. Libertarians are a net-positive influence on Republican foreign policy and some of their arguments for economic freedom contain important insights about oppression and domination. There’s a lot to recommend about “liberaltarianism,” in short.

And yet it never seems to amount to anything in real terms. . . . [Continue reading]

 

The Effects of Partisan News Media on Voters and Members of Congress

Over at Monkey Cage, John Sides discusses new research on media effects conducted by political scientists Kevin Arceneaux, Martin Johnson, René Lindstädt and Ryan J. Vander Wielen:

The emergence of Fox News in 1996 offers researchers a neat opportunity. Cable providers added Fox News gradually, meaning that people in some parts of the country could see Fox News while others could not. The gradual rollout of Fox News makes it easier to identify its effects. For example, Republican-leaning voters were more likely to support then-Gov. George W. Bush in places with Fox News compared to places without it. Now, new research shows that Fox News’s impact extended beyond voters — to members of Congress themselves. And perhaps most surprisingly, both Democratic and Republican members were affected. [Continue reading here.]

Should / Can we Amend the Constitution to Fix “The Biggest Problem in Politics”?

Ari Joseph offers an interesting proposal: amend the Constitution to outlaw private money in public elections.

Questions to ponder:

(1) Is the author correct that there is actually a problem here to be solved? That is, is the system actually tilted toward the “haves” and against the “have nots”? Is this an altogether bad thing? Is there anything to be said in favor of such a system? Conversely, does the author understate the problem? That is, is the system actually more corrupted and/or unrepresentative than suggested? Explain.

(2) If we could wave a magic wand and pass this proposed amendment, how much more representative of lower and middle class income Americans do you think the system would become? Or would it make no difference or even make the system less representative of those economic classes? Explain.

(3) If the “rules of the game” are presently tilted toward the interests of the few, how could a political movement successfully alter those rules so as to make a more even “playing field”? (And if such a political movement could gain that much power, would the amendment then still be necessary?) Explain.

(4) The author suggests that the elimination of private money from politics would be something of a panacea for all the ills of American democracy. Do you think the author is correct in favoring that particular reform, or are there other reforms — e.g. automatic registration, compulsory voting, proportional representation, reforming the nomination process, elimination of equal state representation in the Senate, elimination of the electoral college, moving from a “presidential” (separation of powers) system to a parliamentary system — that would be more likely to fix the problems pointed to by the author? Explain.