Tyranny Of The Tiny Minority

By David Sirota

September 27, 2007 6 min read

Wondering why Congress rarely passes anything the public wants? Then grab Thomas Geoghegan's 1999 memoir, "The Secret Lives of Citizens."

The book shows that, like the Da Vinci Code, the answers to such important questions are often out in the open, encrypted only by our inability to step back and see them. And when you crack this particular mystery about Congress, you learn not only why Washington is paralyzed, but also where to look for domestic progress, and how stopping bills — rather than passing them — is probably the only way to end the Iraq war right now.

As Geoghegan 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.

Those 47 senators understand they don't answer to mainstream public opinion. They rely on merely 16 percent of the nation's total voting-age population to get elected and re-elected — a miniscule segment of America comprising the hard-core Republican base.

Obviously, small-state senators would block Constitutional amendments making our government more democratic. So why bother to know these numbers? Because they tell us how and where we can achieve progress.

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.

Of course, foreign policies like the Iraq War are federal issues and legislating those policies must involve the Senate. But the filibuster hardly means the campaign to end the war is pointless — it just means it requires 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.

It is all about comprehending power. Geoghegan's book exposes the mechanics permitting a tyranny of the tiny minority — one that makes most of us feel disenfranchised. But the numbers also explain which arenas will likely deliver results, and which will not; where we should expend resources pushing for change, and where we should not; and what strategies are appropriate, and what strategies are not.

The question is, will we heed the lesson?

Writer and political analyst David Sirota is the bestselling author of "Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government & How We Take It Back." His daily blog can be found at www.workingassetsblog.com/sirota. To find out more about David Sirota and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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