Can a majority engage in tyrannical rule? Just watch the arguments over the filibuster rule in the U.S. Senate.
Rules surrounding the legislative process can be incredibly arcane, to the point that outsiders often are both confused and bored by their discussion.
But they matter — a lot. That's why people will be hearing quite a bit about the filibuster rule in the U.S. Senate if Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid follows through on his plan to curtail or even end it.
The filibuster is the rule allowing unlimited debate on pending legislation unless members of the Senate vote to end debate by a three-fifths majority. During the heyday of the civil rights movement, it took a two-thirds majority to end debate. That's why passing civil rights bills, over the vehement opposition of Southern Democrats, was so difficult.
From the outside, the idea of the filibuster may not make a lot of sense. It seems to flout the will of the majority.
But there is a reason why the Senate allows the filibuster, and it goes to the very root of our representative democracy.
All 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives are elected every two years, following the Founding Fathers' desire that the House closely reflect the passions of the public.
The 100 members of the U.S. Senate are elected to six-years terms, with one-third of the membership being elected every two years. The electoral framework was designed to shield senators from the same passions that drive the House.
George Washington once compared the Senate to a saucer used to cool hot tea. In other words, its job is to take a more dispassionate, detached look at legislation passed by the House and not be rushed into rash judgments by the passions of the day.
The filibuster is a key tool members of the Senate use to slow down or stop the legislation process, ensuring that all voices are heard and that ample opportunity exists to amend proposed legislation.
That can be frustrating to an agitated majority. Republicans were enraged when Democrats, led by U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer and Barack Obama, used the filibuster to block votes on some of former President Bush's judicial nominees. Some GOP members proposed passing a rule forbidding filibusters of judicial nominees. Cooler heads prevailed.
Now Democrats, led by Reid, are angry that Republicans sometimes filibuster legislation they wish to pass.
Actually, that's not completely accurate, although, like everything else about this issue, it's complicated.
Minority Republicans wish to be able to offer amendments to legislation on the floor of the Senate. Reid has blocked their efforts by using his status as Senate majority leader to offer the maximum number of amendments (usually nonsubstantive) allowed for a pending bill, blocking proposed Republican amendments and giving minority Republicans no voice on the legislative process in the Senate. Consequently, the GOP filibusters legislation that might otherwise have passed if it had the opportunity to offer, but not necessarily pass, amendments.
Reid's handiwork is called "filling the tree." He has used that tactic to block Republican participation on the bill-passing process more frequently than the previous seven majority leaders combined.
It's understandable that Senate Democrats are tempted to use their majority to their own immediate benefit on the filibuster issue.
But they face two problems. Although now in the majority, they will someday be in the minority, and they won't be happy with the rule change if Republicans are in charge.
The more serious problem would come in changing the character of the Senate to become just like the U.S. House.
Legislators run great risks when they fool with the rules of institutions that have served the country so well for more than 200 years. The filibuster, as frustrating as it has been over the years, plays a vital role in the Senate.
If it's overused because of Reid's abuse of the amendment process, the solution is for Reid to stop abusing the amendment process. Then the problem of too many filibusters will take care of itself.