Originally printed in the Washington Post, October 24th, 2011
Our Founding Fathers recognized how the unchecked power of a majority would be a constant threat to individual liberty. They acknowledged that government was necessary, but they also knew that a government elected by a majority could easily trample the freedoms of the minority. They and their ancestors had come from dictatorial monarchies, and they fully understood that, more often than not, government was something to fear and should therefore be limited.
This month Majority Leader Harry Reid and his Democrat colleagues voted to change the Senate rules with a simple majority vote of 51 to 48. Most people would simply shrug and think, “So? Isn’t that the way democracy is supposed to work?” For the past 222 years in the U.S. Senate, the answer to that question has been no.
Historically, if the minority objects, Senate rules dictate that a supermajority vote of two-thirds is first needed to cut off debate, before a simple majority vote can change the rules of the Senate. This requirement was established to protect the rights of the minority in the Senate, just as our Constitution was established to protect the rights of a single individual — the ultimate minority. Instead of using the formal rules change procedure — requiring a two-thirds hurdle vote — Reid used a parliamentary maneuver to set a new precedent, with a simple majority vote.
The limited government envisioned by our Founding Fathers and prescribed by our Constitution was never designed to manage 25 percent of our nation’s economy. Quite the contrary, checks and balances were established to prevent one branch of government from overpowering the other two — primarily to ensure that government’s influence over our lives remained limited so that our liberties would be protected.
The Senate, in particular, was designed to limit the growth of government. Legend has it that George Washington remarked to Thomas Jefferson that the Senate was meant to function like the saucer under a cup of tea — to cool legislation. For 111 years, the Senate was a legislative body of unlimited debate. As long as a single senator, or group of senators, was willing to hold the floor debating an issue, they could prevent that issue from ever coming to a vote. This was a very potent device for blocking the expansion of federal power. Apparently, it was too potent for some.
In 1917, in response to the understandable frustrations with unlimited debate, the Senate changed its rules by instituting the “cloture vote,” which could end debate with the agreement of two-thirds of all senators voting. At that time, the federal government’s budget represented only 3 percent of America’s economy.
The cloture vote made it easier for government to grow, and, guess what, government grew. There were many reasons for this expansion in the 20th century — the passage of the income tax, two world wars, the Great Depression — but the introduction of the cloture vote has certainly proved effective at hampering the Senate’s ability to limit the size and influence of government.
In 1975, not satisfied with the restriction of a two-thirds threshold (67 votes at that time), the Senate again amended its rules to reduce the cloture threshold to three-fifths (60 votes). It took another 34 years before one of our political parties obtained that supermajority representation in the Senate (Democrats in 2009).
We are now living with the results. Obamacare — rejected by a majority of the American public — passed the Senate without a single Republican vote last year. The $787 billion stimulus bill, Dodd-Frank financial regulation and a three-year cumulative budget deficit totaling $4 trillion were made possible by 1975’s lowered cloture threshold.
At the beginning of this Congress, there was an effort by a few Democratic senators to change the Senate rules and muzzle the minority by a simple majority of 51 votes. That effort failed in January but has essentially succeeded in October. If you are like me, and believe that the root cause of our economic woes is the size, scope and cost of government, this is not a good sign.
Washington has proven itself to be incapable of managing 25 percent of America’s economy, much less more than that. Congressional mismanagement has gotten so bad that it has been more than two years since the Senate passed a budget. Instead, we are now operating our $3.6 trillion-a-year government on a “continuing resolution.”
The Senate was designed to make sure that Washington never became this large and intrusive. Successful efforts to curtail this limiting function have resulted in a federal government that is out of control and virtually unmanageable.
Our top priority must be to reestablish control if we are going to prevent the bankrupting of America. The Senate should reverse the new precedent Reid set this month, and begin to return to its constitutional role.
Mr. Johnson is a Republican senator from Wisconsin.