The lessons of gun control: It’s Congress versus the People


Should president Obama have been surprised that the Senate rejected almost all of the gun measures despite the fact that large majorities supported some of the ideas, such as universal background checks? Not really. In part rejection of the gun control measures speak to the power of money in politics or the power of a well organized group to act more effectively than unorganized public opinion. But more specifically, the gun measure speaks to a broader and more serious problem in Washington–how Congress has become a counter-majoritarian institution and is now functioning in ways contrary to what and how the Constitutional Framers envisioned the government to operate.

Political scientist Robert Dahl writes in A Preface to Democratic Theory how the fear of majority faction or the tyranny of the majority dominated the concerns of the constitutional framers. According to Madison in Federalist # 10, a faction was: “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a minority or majority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

Factions threatened the public good and the rights of minorities. Madison thought that minority factions–a group of people composing of less than a majority–could be controlled simply by the majority outvoting them. The real problem was majority faction-the problem of the tyranny of the majority according to Alexis deTocqueville–or balancing majority rule with minority rights, that was the object of constitutional design. The framers feared how a majority could capture hold of the American political system and use it to threat the public good or rights of others. The constitutional solution was to break up political power and slow down the winds of political change. Make it difficult to bring about quick political change.

To accomplish that, the Constitution devised numerous mechanisms to break up political power. We know these techniques–checks and balances, separation of powers, bicameralism, and federalism. These are just the most famous of the institutional mechanisms to thwart majority rule. But add to add two years terms for the House of Representatives, six year terms for the Senate (with no more than one-third elected every two years), and a four year term for the president and one can see how difficult it is to bring about rapid change in any election.

This is a brilliant design but somewhere along the ay Madison missed something–the power of minority factions. He ignored or underrated how powerful a small, cohesive group could be, especially if it possessed significant resources. In effect, a minority faction could effectively capture the government, turning it into a counter-majoritarian institution. This is exactly what is happening now with Congress.

Public opinion polls demonstrate majority support for universal background checks for guns purchases, higher taxes on the wealthy as part of a deficit reduction solution, and same-sex marriage. Yet despite this support on these and other issues, Congress, especially the House of Representatives, seems unwilling to act. All this points to Congress’s counter-majoritarianism, What is meant by counter-majoritarian? The term goes back to Alexander Bickel. A famous legal scholar from the 1950s and author of The Least Dangerous Branch (1962). Bickel’s book was written in reaction to the Earl Warren Supreme Court. He was witnessing a Court that seemed willing to issue opinions that overturned acts of Congress and state legislatures, ignoring the preferences of the will of the majority in an effort to protect minority rights. Bickel described this activity as counter-majoritarian.

Over the years Republicans and conservatives took Bickel’s comments as an indictment of judicial activism. They loathed how the judiciary intervened in matters such as abortion, integration, and criminal due process issues such as the Miranda warnings, search and seizure, and the death penalty. The courts should stay out of what is rightly the task of elections, Congress, and the president to address.

The irony now seems to be a role reversal where Congress has become the counter-majoritarian institution and the Supreme Court the majoritarian one. Look to the two same-sex marriage cases recently before the Supreme Court. Despite public opinion now favoring same-sex marriage, the laws of Congress stand in the way. The Defense of Marriage Act, as several Justices pointed out, is preventing states from changing their laws to reflect new societal conceptions of marriage. The oral arguments in this and in the California Prop 8 case demonstrated a Court hoping that the political process would act (so that it would not have to) while at the same time recognizing that the majority process–in the case of California a ballot initiative–had broken down and the judiciary needed to act to get it working again.

But it is not simply the matter of same-sex marriage that it highlighting the role reversal for Congress and the Supreme Court. What is really clear is how Congress was designed to be counter-majoritarian and it had become more so over time.

But when Congress is faulted but not reflecting public opinion or what the majority of people want in the United States, the answer is that as an institution it is not a national legislature. The House represents 436 separate localities across the country, the Senate 50. Congress is not reflective of national opinion because it is basically a parochial body. If this parochialism is not counter-majoritarianism, it is at least indifferent to national majority preferences. The best sign of that in 2012 1.4 million more votes were cast for Democratic House candidates than Republican candidates. Majority rule did not prevail.

But there are many other ways that Congress is counter-majoritarian. The Senate filibuster allows 41 senators representing as few as 15% of the population to prevent legislation or nominations from being considered. Individual senators can place holds on some legislation or “blue slip” judicial nominations in their home state. In the House a single committee can block the entire body form considering legislation, and it is rare that a discharge petition is successful to force bills from committee to the floor. Partisanship, polarization, and the pull of special interests have only exacerbated these counter-majoritarian tendencies.

Counter-majoritarian is good when it comes to protecting rights. But the counter-majoritarianism in Congress goes beyond that. It is preventing the federal government from getting any work down, undermining the very functioning of our democracy. Barely three months into President Obama second term he already seems like a lame duck, and it appears that time is simply being marked until the 2014 elections. In the meantime, gun and other legislation languishes and this president, like his predecessors, is increasingly turning to executive orders to bypass Congress. In the same way that the Supreme Court should not make policy, presidents should not be able to self-legislate.

Congress has become an anti-democratic institution incapable of functioning expect in rare circumstances. It now stands as an impediment to progress and change. Its anti-majoritarianism has cost it prestige, power, and legitimacy. It is no wonder that the approval rating for cockroaches is higher than that for Congress.