The deal reached within the Republican Senate caucus on the immigration bill is a reminder–as if one were needed–of the problems of what is conventionally called majoritarian governance. While the Senate is not a fully majoritarian body (owing to the filibuster rule), the institutions of the Senate are such that the party with the majority of seats organizes the body and mostly controls the agenda. That’s the essence of “majoritarianism” even if the Senate (and US institutions more generally) deviate from the ideal type in important ways.
There is almost certainly a majority within the Senate for an alternative bill that was more liberal and would have had broader political support in the country than what is now the bill of the majority party. But that majority party–majority only in the sense of the seats it holds–contained elements that would not agree to the broader bill and effectively used their minority to hold up the majority.
This is actually minoritarian democracy, with the “majority party” in the Senate being short of a majority of the electorate and even short of a plurality, but with the bargaining within that non-majority majority setting the agenda. As the graph below shows, all Republican majorities in the past forty years have been based on less than a majority of votes cast in the elections in which all sitting senators were chosen. (Click the image for a larger version.)
What is being generously labelled as a “compromise” is still not assured of passage–the Senate is not fully run by the party with the seat majority, after all–and whatever does pass still has to be reconciled with the far narrower and more draconian bill passed by the highly majoritarian House. The House is a majority tyranny in its internal organization to a far greater degree that the Senate. However, again, as the next graph shows, the Republican party is not a majority party in the electorate. Only in 1994 and 2002 (barely) has the Republican party won a majority of the votes cast in House elections. (On the other hand, Democratic majorities in the past were always based on majorities–often quite broad ones–of the vote, with the exception of 1966, when the “other” or “independent” vote was over 4%.)
Whatever the final shape of the bill that passes the Senate and eventually clears the intercameral conciliation process–aassuming any bill does so–this “compromise” is a setback for the cause of broadly supported immigration reform. The result will be narrower than what the President himself supports–a reminder that even a President with among the narrowest electoral bases we have ever seen in the USA has broader interests than have congressional chambers dominated by a “majority party” that isn’t.
The seats-votes trends shown in the graphs above, and the political cleavages ripped open by the immigration debate, are demonstrations of why I say often that the
majoritarian minoritarian electoral systems that we continue to use and the especially unrepresentative nature of the Senate no longer serve the interests of the broad electorate of this nation.*
For a rundown of the substance of the bill, see the NYT article at the “compromise” link, above, or the summary at Poliblog.
*See various “core” posts listed on the left sidebar for previous discussions of this issue.