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Jewish World Review June 20, 2002 / 10 Tamuz, 5762

Martin Gross

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Anything less than 'one man, one vote' in Senate is painfully undemocratic | Last week, the U.S. Senate showed its undemocratic stripes once again. A vote to make the elimination of the estate tax permanent lost by vote of 54-to-44. Does that mean that a majority of the senators voted against it?

Absolutely not. A strong majority of 54, including almost all Republicans and nine Democrats, voted to do the sensible thing -- which is to make the tax cut permanent and spare people the agony of knowing exactly when to die. Under the present tax law, passed last June, if one dies in 2010, all their estate will be passed on to their heirs. But if one has the audacity to live another year (or even a few months more) into 2011, the tax law reverts back to its 2001 proportions and the government confiscates a good hunk of the money.

Whether one is for or against the estate tax, all of us should become horrified by still another example of the Senate's flouting of the thesis of majority rule that underlies our system. We all know cases of Americans being elected by a single vote over 50 percent. Only the Senate has created its own anti-democratic concept -- that a supermajority on revenue matters can be necessary, meaning that 60, not 51, of the 100 senators must approve. It's a throwback to the era of elite oligarchy, something inconsistent with American political virtue. That rule was in force on the estate tax vote.

The Senate is itself a compromise worked out in 1789 to appease the sovereign desires of the various 13 states, giving each of them two senators regardless of their population. At the time, with a small population of some 3 million, the disparities in states were not overly large. And since the Senate was designed to balance the "mass" feelings of the House, the senators were not elected directly, but were appointed by the state legislatures.

Now all that has changed. Senators are elected directly by the people of their states, and the gap between states has widened enormously. The result is that Wyoming, with only 500,000 people, has the same power in the Senate as California, with 35 million people.

Worse yet, the Senate itself has decided that it will clamp down further on majority rule. It all began as an attempt to cut down unlimited debate -- the great filibuster made famous by Jimmy Stewart in "Mrs. Smith Goes to Washington," which glamorized the Senate tradition of one person holding up the nation by talking, and talking. President Wilson, angered in 1917 by Senate attempts to stop the arming of American merchant ships, said that "the Senate of the United States is the only legislative body in the world which cannot act when its majority is ready for action. A little group of willful men, representing no opinion but their own, have rendered the great government of the United States helpless and contemptible."

The Senate reacted by making its filibuster permanent, requiring a "cloture" vote of 60 senators to shut off debate.

Now, the Senate has extended its anti-democratic rules even further. As a result of the Budget Act of 1974, the Senate can set a 60 vote cut-off as necessary whenever it appears that there will be a loss of revenue to the nation -- the rule that resulted in the majority failing to permanently repeal the estate tax last week.

This, of course, is the opposite of what is needed. If there is to be a super-majority -- which should not exist at all -- it should be used only to stop any increase in taxes.

Wilson was right. The current result of the Senate oligarchy is that it will be virtually impossible to make the tax cuts permanent without a change in leadership. The House has already voted to make the marriage penalty repeal permanent, along with adoption credits, and will soon vote on pension reform, education credits and making marginal rate decreases permanent. But Sen. Daschle, one of Wilson's "willful" men, has already said he doubts he will even bring up those bills.

The solution? First, eliminate the super-majority on any and all bills. And secondly, let's take another look at the whole idea of unlimited debate in the Senate, along with the right of the filibuster.

One man, one vote in the august Senate should become the rule. Anything less is painfully undemocratic.

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© 2002, Creators Syndicate