It’s been a maddening year for California liberals. In the 2008 election, Barack Obama carried the state by a stunning 24 points. He took office with a distinctly progressive agenda and with heavy Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. A moment of liberal breakthrough -- another 1935 or 1965 -- seemed at hand.
And then . . . nothing happened.
The problem wasn’t the House. The House delivered: It passed healthcare reform with a “public option”; it passed financial reform legislation; it passed cap-and-trade legislation that would slow global warming. But then it sent those bills to the Senate, where American progress grinds to a halt. The Senate’s filibuster rule enables the minority party to hold up any legislation that doesn’t have a 60-vote supermajority.
Had the problem been in the House, California liberals might have been able to do something about it. In large part, the House is run by California liberals, and not just Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman and Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller are, with Pelosi, three of the four key House leaders negotiating with the Senate and the president over the final content of healthcare reform legislation. Of the 53 California representatives in the House, 34 are Democrats -- by far the largest single bloc of progressive votes from any state delegation.
But the Senate is another story. In the Senate, California is just another state with two senators. When the Constitution was adopted in 1787, the representational disparities inherent in a system that accords all states the same number of senators had yet to reach absurd proportions. In the 1790 census, there were 11 Virginians (residents of the largest state) for every one Rhode Islander (residents of the smallest). Today, there are 68 Californians for every resident of Wyoming. Constitutionally, Californians are the most underrepresented Americans in the Senate by a large margin.
Worse yet, the Senate’s rules make even more of a mockery of the principle of majority rule. With Republicans determined to keep Congress from doing its job, 60 votes are required to pass any significant legislation. As a consequence, Obama’s legislative agenda has been hostage to the demands and obsessions of the Senate’s most conservative Democrats, a number of whom -- Nebraska’s Ben Nelson and North Dakota’s Kent Conrad, for instance -- come from states with more ghost towns than cities.
Frustrated California Democrats may ask their senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, to do something to move Obama’s and their own agenda, but it’s not been clear what Boxer and Feinstein can do. The Senate rules all but preclude movement when the minority party wants to block the majority.
And yet, the House wasn’t always run by the principle of majority rule either. For decades, powerful committee chairmen who held their posts by virtue of seniority could bottle up legislation at will. As the most senior members were often Southern segregationists, the power of the chairmen doomed civil rights legislation until the 1960s and impeded other progressive initiatives through the 1970s.
It was only then that a legislative genius named Phil Burton -- the liberal San Francisco congressman who dominated the House during that decade -- persuaded House Democrats to elect their chairmen rather than rely solely on seniority. With that, the most conservative House Democrats began to vote more like their more numerous liberal colleagues.
Burton died in 1983, but a number of his proteges -- in particular Pelosi, Miller and Waxman -- are leading figures in Congress (and his brother, former congressman John Burton, chairs the California Democratic Party). More important still is the lesson that Burton offers to liberals today: To secure social reform, you sometimes have to blow up the legislative processes that block majority rule. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, that meant changing the rules of the House. Today, it means abolishing the filibuster in the Senate.
That’s the cause that California liberals should be demanding Boxer and Feinstein embrace. The filibuster is an affront to the most basic principles of democracy: that majorities govern; that elections matter. It can be repealed by a two-thirds vote of the body or, more contentiously, by a majority vote upholding a ruling of the chair that strikes it down.
Abolishing the filibuster carries risks, of course, should Democrats lose control of the Senate. But liberals should be committed to the principle of majority rule.
Exasperated by the Senate’s inability to act, liberal groups are considering making support for the filibuster’s repeal a condition for endorsing first-time Senate candidates. That’s not enough. Incumbent senators should be asked to undo the filibuster now.
And who better to lead the charge than the senators from California, whose constituents are already the most underrepresented in the Senate?
As Phil Burton once democratized the House, so Boxer and Feinstein should democratize the Senate.
Harold Meyerson is editor at large of the American Prospect and an Op-Ed columnist for the Washington Post.