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Can't we just have majority rule?

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Thursday, January 6, 2011

Quick: Which fact in Washington is more outrageous?

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(1) We don't have majority rule in America, thanks to the Senate filibuster rules; or

(2) The Democrats' plan for "controversial" filibuster reform doesn't actually seek to establish majority rule in America.

It's a close call, but I'll take No. 2. Apparently making a full-throated case for majority rule is too controversial a step in the year 2011 in the world's leading democracy.

I'm having a hard time explaining this to my 13-year-old daughter. She gets that the Bill of Rights protects certain fundamental liberties against even a determined majority's thirst to trample on them.

But protecting a determined minority's desire to thwart the will of the majority on legislation of all kinds? A minority that might represent as little as 15 percent of the population?

It's not clear what theory of governance elevates the tyranny of the minority into a sacred principle.

It can't be the pabulum about "the Senate's unique role as a moderating influence," as Mitch McConnell argued in The Post Wednesday. The framers did that by giving senators six-year terms, not the filibuster.

When you step back from the nitty-gritty, some debates reveal a Big Picture, while other rare issues involve a Really Big Picture. Pull back the lens from the filibuster and the Really Big Picture is this: If we can't scrap the filibuster, we won't thrive in the 21st century.

Let me connect some dots and defend that statement.

As James Fallows noted in an important Atlantic Monthly cover story a year ago, American society now presents a paradox. We have a vibrant, innovative private sector, whose routine birthing of Googles, iPads and Facebooks is the envy of the world. Yet this private dynamism is increasingly weighed down by dysfunctional public institutions that have allowed our infrastructure, and education and health-care systems (among other things) to fall into disrepair - or to operate with crippling inefficiency and ineffectiveness.

This public dysfunction comes at a particularly bad time, because it's the moment when America is losing - as eventually it had to - its unique post-World War II economic primacy. Global competition now poses a threat to middle-class living standards. The adjustment to a world of rising economic powers would be stressful even if we had fabulously competent and effective public institutions. Needless to say, that's not where we are.


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