Too Much Minority Non-Rule

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid promised that if the Democrats retain a majority in the Senate next year, he will push for filibuster reform. This is good to hear, since the filibuster–not the all-night talkathons that we used to have when I was a youngster, but the requirement that 60 votes are necessary to cut off debate and amendment on a bill–is one of the most pernicious and anti-democratic causes of the political gridlock which now pertains. It is especially good to hear from Reid, since he is the chucklehead who prevented reform in 2010.

The filibuster, as we all know, is one of the Senate rules that protects minorities from what is often perceived as the more emotional and psychologically deranged House of Representatives. But let’s face it, the Senate really makes a fetish out of minority protection. First of all, it’s very structure promotes minorities; giving every state two senators substantially rewards the residents of Montana and Wyoming, and impoverishes the voters of California and New York. Allowing 41 Senators to stop legislation theoretically creates a situation where the senators from the 20 states with the lowest populations, plus one, can stop everything. Given that the population of the 20 states with the fewest people is around 32 million people, that means that things can grind to a complete halt at the behest of a little over ten percent of the population. Even for a body that likes to protect minority rights, that seems excessive.

How excessive is the 60% rule? I thought it might be amusing to apply it to something we’re all familiar with–sports. In most sports, a simple majority rules. If you’re on the team that scores the majority of the points, you win. But what if you were required to win with 60% of the points scored?

So far this year, the New York Yankees have a record of 59 and 39. Let’s call that the House of Representatives League. In the Senate League, however, the record is different. In those 59 wins, the Yanks have scored only 60% or more of the runs just 41 times. Of course, in those 39 losses, their opponents have topped the magic 60% total only 23 times. So in the Senate League, instead of a 59 and 39 record and a .602 win percentage, the Yanks would have a 41 and 23 record, and a whopping .640 win percentage. This might seem pretty good if you’re a Yankee fan, but you have to consider that what you also have is 34 games with no resolution. More than a third of the schedule would just be wasted time–even though one team or the other had a majority.

Of course, the harder it is to get points in a sport, the more likely it is that a team can attain a 60% majority; after all, a 3-2 win meets the threshold, while a 4-3 win does not. In football, for example, scores are usually higher. The New York Giants played 20 games last year, including the Super Bowl, which they won. Their overall record in those games where one team or the other scored a simple majority of the points was 13 and 7; in games where a team had to score a supermajority of 60% of the points, the Giants were just 6 and 4, with ten games counting for nothing, including the exciting Super Bowl triumph.

It could be worse. In their march through the payoffs, the World Champion Miami Heat played 23 games. In the Senate basketball Association, they won none of them. Nobody did. Nobody ever got 60 percent of the score (although the Heat did get 59.2% of the points one night against the Knicks.

Welcome to the Senate League, where a lot of time, nobody ever win.

[Cross-posted at]

Jamie Malanowski

Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. He has been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor.