In the Absence of a Super-Majority, 10% Will Rule the Country

January 20, 2010 at 3:40 am | Posted in In the News, The Heath Care System | 2 Comments

The headline says it all. According to The New York Times, Republican Scott Brown won the special election in Massachusetts, and will fill the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s seat. On the campaign trail, Brown promised to be the 41st vote that would block health care legislation by threatening a filibuster. As a result, 41 senators who represent 10% of the nation’s population will be able to derail health care reform.

Make no mistake: they will derail it, and do so loudly and righteously. The Republicans will hold ranks, and conservative Democrats will work tirelessly to lard any remaining bill with more pork and greater concessions. Ultimately, we won’t get a damn thing. By God, I’m sick of this. Citizens of the United States are dying by tens of thousands annually for lack of health care coverage. If you can remain placid in the face of that fact, consider this: The current system is a gigantic anchor to industrial progress. Countries with universal health care enjoy a huge competitive advantage in the “global marketplace” (a phrase I hate). So my industry in particular, one of the few areas of manufacturing remaining partly in the U.S., will see business go to European competitors.

Let me mention a few especially annoying points.

First, when the Times interviewed Brown supporters in Massachusetts, again and again they said that they didn’t want health care reform “rammed down [their] throats.” In what alternate universe has anything been rammed down anyone’s throat? The House and Senate bills in conference were, in the words of one Democratic senator, “the compromise of a compromise.” It’s not like they mandated universal, single-payer coverage for all; they didn’t even allow people 55 and older to buy into Medicare. Nope. The Senate version was a feeble, washed-out compromise more or less dictated by that smarmy turncoat, Joseph Lieberman. Its net effect would actually be a giveaway to insurance companies and Big Pharma. But even that wouldn’t be enough to satisfy conservatives, apparently.

Second, Massachusetts already has near-universal health care mandated at the state level. So 52 percent of the voters in a tiny state — one of 20 states with tiny populations — will deprive the rest of us of a shot at a decent, workable system.

And for some reason it really bugs me that Republican Senators don’t actually have to filibuster — that is, hole up on the Senate floor reading aloud from their home state’s phone book until the majority gives in out of sheer impatience. They can just threaten to do it, and if Democrats call their bluff, everyone will just take their marbles and go home. I want to hear the phone book, damn it.

Finally, the current procedural rules came into effect in the late 19th Century, so they weren’t exactly drafted by the Founding Fathers. They are protected primarily by Senate tradition, and of course jealously defended by The Minority That Rules.

I’m genuinely pissed off about this. What does it take to implement even the most feeble change in this country? Tea Baggers were already roaming the country promising to lynch President Obama at the prospect of adopting solidly centrist changes. The previous administration assembled a lawless Praetorian Guard, held people in preventative detention for years without bringing charges against them, and formally authorized torture. With the exception of that latter, these policies are still in place. Hell, they tap phones without judicial approval. What’s next?

Ironically, for all of my complaints about incipient fascism, recent events have destroyed my faith in democracy. It’s still the worst system of governance except all of the rest. We fancy ourselves leaders of the Free World and latter-day Athenians (those of us who remember Athens); in truth, we struggle to educate the next generation in basic scientific principles, let alone to produce the engineers we need to compete militarily. With the exception of material riches, we live in ignorance and squalor. We are the Athenians, folks — the Athenians at the end of the Peloponnesian War, when eternal wars with Sparta precipitated what historians call the Greek Dark Ages.

Grr. Okay. Back to our regularly scheduled programming.


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  1. Excellent analysis. I know the considerable risk (tyranny of the majority, simply put) associated with changing the Senate Rule (22, I believe) regarding the filibuster, but it may be time to revisit this issue because the Senate has become a burial ground for any hopes we may have that the government can do even the most obviously necessary things. The rule, I’m told, CAN be changed by a simple majority during a parliamentary procedure (so-called nuclear option) or even at the initiation of a Senate session. It’s not impossible to get around the 67 votes needed to change the rule that you need 60 votes for cloture.

    If you did this, of course, you’d have to worry about the Republicans reversing everything when they get a majority. But that’s politically hard to do since once people got access to a program like Medicare for All, it would be incredibly difficult to take it away from them without getting your electoral head handed to you. I tend to think that a right-wing simple majority would enact authoritarian and extremely unpopular measures that a Democratic opposition would reap rewards from reversing, while the Democrats would enact popular measures that there would be hell to pay for reversing. Of course, the Republicans would also find it fairly easy with a majority to seat morons for life on the federal judiciary benches, and a minority of Dems couldn’t stop them….

    But there’s also the SCOTUS decision on corporate political spending to factor in — now they stand a good chance of pretty much BUYING some unscrupulous individual to fill any House or Senate seat. That would subvert the capacity of congress to do the people’s will.

  2. Yes, exactly. One other point: It seems the very people most in need of health care reform were the ones who failed to turn out in adequate numbers to elect the Democrat in Massachusetts. I agree the system sucks, but–given that flawed political system–I’m still amazed at how often we are persuaded to vote against our own interests or discouraged from voting at all.

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