Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Inscrutibility of American Politics

Here's a posting by James Fallows that looks at the odd math that the writers of the US Constitution put in place and which has been distorted by demographic changes over the years:
As I point out in my article in the current issue [of The Atlantic], the combination of three forces:
  • The original Constitutional compromise giving two Senate seats to every state, large or small;

  • The post-Constitutional patterns of population growth, which leave California with nearly 37 million people and Wyoming with just over half a million; and

  • The very recent practice of subjecting almost every Senate action to the threat of filibuster, which requires 60 votes to surmount...
... means that in theory Senators representing only 12% of the U.S. population could block efforts that Senators representing the other 88% support.

In reality, the pattern is not that extreme. The Republican minority in the Senate includes some from highly-populated states -- two from Texas, one each from Florida and Ohio. The Democratic majority includes some from low-population states -- both from Delaware and West Virginia, one each from Alaska and Nebraska.

So in reality, what's the population balance? Counting the new Republican Senator Scott Brown from Massachusetts, the 41 Republicans in the Senate come from states representing just over 36.5 percent of the total US population. The 59 others (Democratic plus 2 Independent) represent just under 63.5 percent. (Taking 2009 state populations from here. If you count up the totals and split a state's population when it has a spit delegation, you end up with about 112.3 million Republican, 194.7 million Democratic + Indep. Before Brown's election, it was about 198 million Democratic + Ind, 109 million Republican.)

Let's round the figures to 63/37 and apply them to the health care debate. Senators representing 63 percent of the public vote for the bill; those representing 37 percent vote against it. The bill fails.
Parliamentary practice in Canada allows rule by the minority but it is always with the consent of other parties so that any legislation passed in effect carries a majority (but not a "needed super-majority") to pass. The quaint and inscrutible American political need for a "super-majority" is quite unfathomable as a device for a democracy. I get the need to respect the rights of minorities, and the need for a super-majority vote to change a constitution, but I don't get the ability to put supermajority roadblocks in the way of ordinary legislation.

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