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Most democracies are, to varying degrees, majoritarian in that the majority group, whether as an expression of voting population, as defined by ethnicity or religion, or as a manifestation of regionalism, enjoys primacy in the development of public policy. Whether majoritarianism constitutes the sole determinative factor in the development of polices, however, is the key to whether it represents a truly democratic form of government. The Founding Fathers of the United States of America, in particular, the principal drafters of the Constitution, especially James Madison, understood the importance of a democratic form of government in which the majority of the population would set the course, but the minority would be able to influence the process through the structures established in that document. The framers of the Constitution were extraordinarily conscientious with regard to the concept of separation of powers, not just between branches of government, but within the principal branch of government most representative of and responsive to the people: Congress. The U.S. House of Representatives, for instance, is run under a strict form of majoritarianism in which the majority party, currently the Republicans, exercises near-total control over the institution’s proceedings. The majority party in the House sets the legislative calendar and determines what legislation comes before the body for a vote. It rules committees and the passage of legislation occurs on a strict majority versus minority voting process.
The U.S. Senate, in contrast to the House, is a far less majoritarian institution, with the minority party enjoying considerable power relative to its numerical representation. A single senator can block legislation from coming to a vote, can place “holds” on nominations, and can influence policy far greater than in the House. Under the terms of the Constitution, specifically, Article II, Section II, so-called “super majorities” are required to ratify treaties negotiated by the Executive Branch: “He [the president] shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur.” Anytime the majority party of the Senate comprises less than two-thirds of the senators present to vote, majoritarianism weakens, as members of the minority party are required to ratify the treaty.
As with the House of Representatives, which is maintains its own “rules” governing its conduct, the Senate similarly maintains its own rules, and those rules provide for a great deal of power on the part of the minority. The filibuster, for instance, is not mentioned in the Constitution, but represents one of the most significant and powerful tools enjoyed not just by the minority party in the Senate, but by any single senator objecting to the institution’s proceedings. Under Senate Rule XXII, three-fifths of the Senate has to concur in order to “invoke cloture,” meaning, debate on the bill in question must come to close, thereby ending a filibuster.
So, the House of Representatives represents one extreme with regard to majoritarianism, while the Senate represents the other extreme. Neither is democratic in the sense of ensuring majority rule while respecting the rights of the minority, as the House is run like a dictatorship while the Senate conveys to each individual member a level of power out of proportion to his or her representation in the institution as a whole. Which system is preferable is routinely debated in Washington, D.C., but most recognize that the distinctions between the two chambers ensure a reasonable balance of power between the numerically larger and considerably less-democratic House and the Senate.
The benefits of a majoritarian form of government involve the certainty that the rights and preferences of the majority of the population or group hold sway over the preferences of the minority. For a true democracy to exist, however, there must well-established, and enforced, protections for the rights of the minority. The danger to civil liberties lies in a majoritarian system that fails to provide such protections, and allows for absolute majority rule, which, absent countervailing powers, will invariably threaten the rights of the minority. It is significant that the longest filibuster by an individual senator in the history of that body was conducted by South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, who spoke on the Senate floor for 24 hours and 18 minutes – in opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
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