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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Are There Constraints on a Supermajority?

How “extreme” can a legislative supermajority get? Complicating an answer, the term extreme may be applied to a piece of legislation by one person and refused by another. I come from a medium-sized city in the Midwest, where extreme includes commuting to work by bicycle during the summer (such things are likened to “thinking outside the box”). Where a pathological fear of change grips a town, you don’t have to go far to find someone proscribing something or other as too extreme. At the level of the U.S. governmental institutions, one party might deem universal health insurance through extant private insurance companies as extreme—tantamount to demonic European socialism—while another party might view the reform as unduly constrained by the status quo (i.e., via private enterprise, absent even a public option). Extreme, it turns out, depends on the observer.

It follows that it is extremely difficult to determine whether a supermajority has gone too far in legislating its will through a government. Concluding the resultant legislation is too extreme, given the legitimacy that comes with the democratic process, is subject to critique and repudiation. What limits exist on a supermajority’s legislative prerogative? What limits should exist? Should any exist?

In the E.U., states have certain planks in their basic law that cannot be changed by amendment. This represents a limit on what a supermajority can do. The American states have no such permanent basic law; any part of a constitution can be changed through amendment. Of course, both the E.U. and U.S. contain limitations on what can be in a state constitution. For instance, an E.U. state cannot add a plank to its constitution nullifying all E.U. laws while remaining a member of the union. South Carolina tried such a move in 1830 only to be rebuffed by Andrew Jackson in the White House. So being in a political union can act as a limit on a supermajority in a state legislature.

Additionally, having to satisfy other parties in the governing coalition in a parliament can act as a constraint on any one party getting too extreme. Furthermore, having a bicameral (i.e., two chamber) legislature can permit divided government. Two-party systems tend to rely on this constraint. When a supermajority controls both chambers and the executive’s veto pen, the courts become the final constraint other than possibly the next election. In the American context after the 2010 election, Republicans had a supermajority controlling the legislatures and chief executives in several of the republics. The question of limits moved to the fore.

For example, the Republican Party enjoyed a supermajority of 124 to 41 in the Kansas legislature—plus control of the executive branch. Rather than contending coalitions checking each other within the party, a conservative bloc guaranteed a united supermajority. As a result, a series of anti-abortion bills were quickly made law. Enter the federal court in the summer of 2011. The judges imposed injunctions preventing two of the new laws from taking effect pending the outcome of suits against them. The New York Times observes that “in a year in which expanded Republican majorities in many states have been able to operate without the usual obstacles presented by divided government—threat of veto from a governor, split chambers or even minority opposition large enough to force compromise—these court challenges amount to the first real efforts to slow the crush of conservative legislation.” The paper goes on to note that such efforts are no guarantee that the crush would necessarily be lessened.

In Wisconsin, the republican legislative and executive branches pushed through limits on collective bargaining of government employees, including teachers. The Wisconsin Supreme Court subsequently affirmed the legitimacy of the law. One might say that the Republican Party had an insurmountable majority in all three branches of government. Where this is the case, one might wonder how—in James Madison’s language—the minority can be protected from the tyranny of a majority. The judiciary has the role of protecting individual rights against a government, but that branch can effectively be controlled by the same party that holds the supermajority. Also, were the judiciary is at the union level, the effect can be one of political consolidation, which creates pressures particularly when the union is on the empire scale (e.g., U.S. and E.U.). This must be weighed against the power of local elites in the judiciaries of the states. The abortion cases in Kansas demonstrate how the rights of individuals can hang in the balance (i.e., not just of minority political parties).

Lest divided government be lauded as the answer, however, one might recall that gridlock can bring inaction more than compromise when different parties control the legislative chambers (and/or executive branch). An intractable problem, such as having over $14 trillion in government debt (the U.S.), may require significant governmental action that can be stymied by stubborn gridlock. The cost of partisanship was evident in July 2011 as Congress’s “handling” of the debt-ceiling resulted in a AA rating from AAA by Standard & Poors and a public approval rating of only about 20 percent.

Moreover, a patchwork of laws, each based on particular compromises made by the contending parties, may enervate the economic or political system itself. So rather than preventing one party from being able to enact its program by relying on divided government, Americans might want to consider structural limitations that are not triggered before any legislation is passed. Making the judiciary less partisan by how judges are selected might be a step in this direction. Also, making it easier for more than two political parties to be represented in a two-party-system legislature might temper the impact of any one party’s ideology from carrying the system too far—too extreme—in one direction. Such constraints are better than the alternative of gridlock paralysis, particularly at the state level—given the extent of political consolidation in the U.S.

Divided government can be less relied on at the state level that at the federal level. This differential alone would structurally “push” more domestic government back closer to the people and accommodate the innate cultural differences that exist across a continent and beyond. Oklahoma is not Vermont (even if most Europeans tend to mesh them vaguely as “American”). Systemic thinking, such as is evinced in allowing—by structural design—for divided government more in Washington than in Austin, is urgently needed in America. Even so, Americans are more oriented to going from issue to issue—even while observing that the system is somehow fundamentally broken—than looking at the system itself and proffering and voting on systemic proposals apart from any particular partisan issue.


A.G. Sulzberger, “Courts Put the Brakes on Agenda of G.O.P.”, New York Times, September 6, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/06/us/06legal.html