02.25.10

Ram It Through!

The GOP argues it would be undemocratic for Democrats to pass health-care reform using reconciliation. But, Peter Beinart argues, that’s how our republic works.

Democrats are considering using the reconciliation process to pass health-care reform in the Senate, a maneuver that would require only 51 votes. Republicans are outraged. Using reconciliation to pass health care, they insist, would be undemocratic.

It’s an odd argument, when you think about it. Senate Republicans are employing the filibuster more than any Congress in history. (In the 19th Century, the Senate witnessed about one filibuster per decade. By the 1960s, filibusters still greeted less than ten percent of legislation. In this Congress, by contrast, Republicans have filibustered 80 percent of major bills). This near-permanent filibuster has created a de facto 60 vote requirement for passing most legislation. And because the GOP filibusterers disproportionately represent small states, that 60-vote requirement actually translates to about 2/3 of the American people. That, according to Republican logic, is democratic. Circumventing a filibuster and thus requiring 51 votes, by contrast, tramples the will of the people.

Our entire political system is premised on the right of Congress to act in defiance of its constituents as long as members are willing to face those constituents at the ballot box.

Republicans buttress their case with polls. The American people, they note, generally tell pollsters that they oppose the Democratic health-care bill. (In fact, surveys suggest that when you actually tell Americans what’s in it, they become more supportive). But let’s take the Republican argument on its face. Americans oppose Obama’s health-care reform and therefore, passing it is undemocratic.

The GOP actually has a point here: There is something undemocratic about passing laws that a majority of Americans oppose. We just don’t happen to live in a democracy; we live in a democratic republic. Instead of putting laws to a popular vote, as they did in ancient Athens, we elect members of Congress, and allow them to vote as they please.

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Our entire political system, in fact, is premised on the right of members of Congress to act in defiance of their constituents as long as those members of Congress are willing to face those constituents at the ballot box. That’s what many congressional Republicans did in 2006 when they supported George W. Bush’s surge in Iraq even though most Americans opposed it. Back then, it was called voting your conscience.

All this would be pretty uncontroversial, I suspect, were it not for the media, which has trouble distinguishing between things that are unpopular and things that are wrong. On cable, politicians and pundits are forever declaring that the American people agree with them, as if that ends the argument. And their opponents almost never respond by saying that the view of the American people is irrelevant, because the American people are wrong. By pretending that the public agrees with them on everything, politicians create the impression that there is something illegitimate about holding views that the majority of Americans don’t share. That’s the perception Republicans are exploiting during the health-care fight. It would be nice if someone disabused them of it.

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, will be published by HarperCollins in June. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.