When is a majority not a majority? Answer: when it is a vote in the U.S. Senate.
There are 100 members in the upper chamber of Congress, as anyone beyond the third grade should know. That means a majority is 51. Right? Wrong!
Because the Senate makes up its own rules, the number of votes it takes to adopt nearly almost any legislation beyond simple housekeeping measures is 60. That's because of a clearly undemocratic process called the filibuster. It allows a handful of opponents to thwart any or all of the important stuff Congress is supposed to do because of ideological or political differences or out of just plain spite. This device can only be shut off (they call that cloture) by reaching the 60-vote plateau.
Now Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wants to change the rules and a small group of his fellow Democrats and some outside folks have asked the courts to rule whether the filibuster is constitutional. For us laymen, it seems a fair question, although minority Republicans who have been effectively blocking key votes on controversial legislation are dedicated to making certain it doesn't get answered and nothing changes at least until they somehow win back control of the Senate.
Before we come down too hard on the GOP, it has to be noted that when Democrats were in the minority, they felt about the same way as the Republicans do today. Without the power to alter the mathematics of a simple majority, how would the minority ever be anything but a whining bunch of naysayers without any clout?
For Americans who have been suffering through the legislative turmoil of recent decades not being able to count on much of anything important, knowing that something could get done for the money they have been paying the largest bozo club on the planet would be a huge relief. The gridlock produced by the filibuster is as bad as (actually worse than) any traffic jam here caused by an unpredicted blizzard at rush hour when all the fear-maddened drones exit their government offices seeking escape. Besides, the filibuster lasts a lot longer and does far more damage.
It seems doubtful at least from a common sense perspective that the Founding Fathers of this frequently inept system envisioned the majority as being anything more than one past half of the total. In less recent history there were occasions when someone would grab the floor and try to talk to death a bill or an amendment as Jimmy Stewart did in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." But that wasn't often. Between 1840 and 1900, the device was used a mere 16 times and those were on the thorniest questions to face the nation, like slavery.
If you should have any doubts about the obstructionist value of this insidious and debilitating method of getting your way without the numbers to support it, it seems important to pay attention to its current popularity. Between 2009 and 2010, there were more than 130 filibusters recorded, practically wiping out any semblance of majority rule and turning the legislative process into a joke.
Humorist Will Rogers once said Congress was the greatest collection of comedians in the world. Every time they passed a law it was a joke. Well, that doesn't hold true today since they rarely pass anything that might make things better for the majority of the rest of us. Oops, there's that word again ... majority. So questions like immigration or solvency in the entitlement programs and on and on never get dealt with.
Opponents of doing away with the filibuster see it as the only means of balancing the legislative power structure, preventing the minority from becoming an impotent opposition.
They argue that it would be stepping over the line between legislative and judicial boundaries for the courts to decide how the Senate conducts its business. For us untutored in the finer points of constitutional law, it is a simple mathematic principle on which the nation was founded. It is called the majority rules, and in the Senate that means 51 votes for and 49 against -- or at least it should.
(Dan Thomasson is former editor of Scripps Howard News Service.)