Tuesday, May 17, 2005

NUCLEAR WATCH Supporters of the nuclear option tend to pepper their arguments with appeals to "democratic" values: The filibuster, they contend, thwarts the will of the American people; it undermines basic majoritarian principles; it allows a relatively small number of senators to hold the Senate hostage.

The most powerful formulation of this argument focuses on numbers. Here's Timothy Noah (writing back in 2000, in an entirely different context) in Slate:

Geoghegan calculates that 41 senators representing about 10 percent of the population can [using the filibuster] block a bill favored by 60 senators representing about 90 percent of the population.
When the argument is put that starkly, it does seem unchallengeable: It's hard to see what's gained by giving senators representing 10 percent of the country veto control over the national agenda.

And if concentrating that much leverage in such a small minority doesn't qualify as undemocratic, it's hard to imagine what would.

At least, until you read a few sentences further in Noah's article:

Similarly, [Geoghegan] points out, 51 senators representing "16 percent and a bit more" could pass any bill they wished, even if 84 percent of the population opposed it.
Think about that.

It means that when the undemocratic group of 41 senators rounds up colleagues from Connecticut, Oregon, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Kentucky (and the Iowa colleague to the 41st senator cited above) representing a measly six percent of the population, they're no longer just a minority with veto control.

They can now--in the absence of a filibuster threat--ram whatever nominations they want down the throat of the 84 percent of the public represented by just 49 senators.

(You can do your own state-by-state mixing and matching here.)

Now, reasonably people can argue about which of these two upshots is more dangerous. (Personally, I think it's more of a threat for such a small minority to be able to effect than quash change.)

But either way, anyone who is being intellectually honest has to agree that neither of these situations is remotely democratic. Both the presence and absence of the filibuster carry the potential for radically undemocratic consequences--and in roughly equal measure.

And so judging between them in terms of their adherence to democratic values is a lot like deciding between two pairs of shoes on the basis of taste.

Of course, the debate over the filibuster isn't really about democracy at all. It's about power.

If democracy was what nuclear option supporters were looking to advance, they'd be talking about getting rid of the Senate altogether--which, incidentally, is what Noah is arguing for in his piece.

Still, I wouldn't expect to see a flurry of Republican-sponsored "Abolish the Senate" constitutional amendment proposals coming down the pike any time soon.

CONTRAPOSITIVE is edited by Dan Aibel. Dan's a playwright. He lives in New York City.