Majority Power and Regret

Majority Power and Regret

Every now and then, the partisan majority of a legislature shouts “Carpe Diem” (in honor of Robin Williams, may he rest in peace) and boldly passes legislation that redresses some offense experienced by said party.

Very often, these are not obvious subjects for legislation. Most citizens may not have had any experience with the “problem,” and others, often many others, don’t see a problem at all.

But when one is in the majority, well, one gets to call the shots.

We saw this last year with the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate. Deeply frustrated by the successful efforts of the Republican minority to stand astride the Obama administration’s path of appointment of federal judges and officials, not to mention the passage of various pieces of legislation, the Democratic majority invoked the “nuclear option,”  turning a body that relied heavily upon mutual collegiality and extraordinary deference to one that looked more like the bare-fisted reality of simple majority (read: partisan) rule.

One might guess that, had the Democrats kept their powder dry and borne the pains of outrageous suffering a bit longer . . . say, until January 2015 . . . it might have been the Republicans who would be facing the ultimate legislative question and the Democrats who would be rejoicing in the extraordinary power of the minority.

The Republicans have taken their shots at such legislation in Washington in the past as well. Indeed, perhaps the most famous (and most famously regretted) was the passage of the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1947 (ratified in 1951). Having been frozen out of the White House for four consecutive terms by larger-than-life President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Republican majority determined that they would never again face such an obstacle to a clean sweep of the Washington establishment.

Of course, when they couldn’t re-nominate General Eisenhower in 1960 or The Gipper (Ronald Reagan) in 1988, there was considerable consternation in GOP ranks about the short-sightedness of their colleagues from the 1940s.

There’s a lesson in this.

Please note that, in both of my examples, as well as innumerable other examples that could be offered at all levels of representative democracy, there was nothing unlawful about what the majority in the legislature chose to do. It may have been imprudent, or short-sighted, but it wasn’t illegal. Legislative majorities, even in the United States (where our system actually was designed to thwart majorities from having their way too easily) are tremendously powerful. There are some things they can’t do, but there are an awful lot of things they can.

And when they do, who can object and have their objection have any effect? Only the voters, the next time they’re at the polls. And, to be clear about this, the voters’ objection only has effect if some other party (or potentially some rival faction in the majority party) offers a credible alternative.

But change comes eventually. Even entrenched majorities eventually are forced out of the trenches and driven into minority status (or historical oblivion). That historical fact is worth considering when one wields the power of the majority.

Next: Republican Gun Control