Making the case for the supermajority — in DC and CA

The chamber of the California State Senate, Sacramento. (Photo: Sundry Photography)

Connecting the high-profile debate in Congress over voting rights with an equally high-profile California discussion about a single payer health care system run by the government might seem incongruous.

However, the connection is not on what the bills hoped to accomplish but rather the efforts to alter current mechanisms that provide for more stability in lawmaking.

Advocates wanted to see a change in current standards — 60 votes of the 100 members to overcome a filibuster in Washington to pass the voting rights bills in a politically divided Senate, and a two-thirds vote to raise taxes in Sacramento.

Supermajorities are stop signs against wildly changing laws.

For both the voting-rights legislation on the federal level and to raise taxes to fund single payer health care on the state level, supermajority votes were obstacles in achieving the proponents’ desires. 

But a case can be made to preserve supermajority votes.

Creating a standard greater than a simple majority vote is not uncommon in our system of governance.

The United States and California constitutions establish a number of instances in which a supermajority vote is required to give certainty and assure consensus in important decisions. Juries require supermajority or even unanimous votes to convict. 

For a public weary of political polarization and squabbling, the best reason to maintain the status quo is to keep laws predictable and stable and promote the public’s confidence in the law. Changes in laws can be achieved under supermajority rules — if a proposed change enjoys wide support.

Supermajorities are stop signs against wildly changing laws.

Depending on which ideological group gains power, constantly changing laws would have a dizzying effect on the populace. There is an oft-repeated phrase in the business world that what businesses desire most of all when policy debates arise is “certainty.” It is not a long leap to apply the desire for certainty in our laws to the general public, as well.

The majority vote provision does away with the state’s two-thirds vote requirement to raise taxes.

When Arizona’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema explained her decision to oppose changing the 60-vote filibuster rule so that the voting rights legislation could be passed with a majority vote, she said, “What is the legislative filibuster other than a tool that requires new federal policy to be broadly supported by senators representing a broader cross-section of Americans?”

What Sinema referred in her speech as a “guard rail” to protect the minority echoes a standard that stretches back to the beginning of America’s Republic to guard against a “tyranny of the majority.”

In the California situation, a bill to create single-payer health care controlled by the state was to be funded by a separate measure to raise taxes. While ACA 11 proposes raising a multitude of taxes to fund the single payer health care plan, it also carries a provision that if supplementary revenue is needed to meet the demands of a California health care system in the future, additional tax revenues can be raised by the Legislature with a simple majority vote.

The majority vote provision does away with the state’s two-thirds vote requirement to raise taxes.

Almost assuredly, the expensive scheme to create a state run health care system will require more revenue than anticipated had single payer passed.

Supermajorities require legislators with different views to talk to each other, compromise, and reach consensus.

Analysts suggest the cost would be higher than Gov. Gavin Newsom’s current state budget proposal of $286 billion. Even without additional tax increases, if the health care plan and its funding system came to be, the total budget to run California for one year would be more than a half-a-trillion dollars — a major reason legislators decided to duck a vote on the single payer plan.

Government budget overruns are cliché.

A major California example: the bullet train. A single payer system would certainly need more revenue. Since alternative health care systems would be displaced by single payer, there will be no competitive substitute for people to turn and a simple majority vote would increase taxes. 

Both vote change on the filibuster and lowering the standard to pass taxes in California are considered carve-outs for specific purposes: voting rights in the federal case, health care in California. But there is little doubt that if these changes were successful there would follow other efforts to eliminate the filibuster in Congress and to do away with the two-thirds vote for taxes in California.

Supermajorities require legislators with different views to talk to each other, compromise, and reach consensus. Resisting the proposed vote changes also reassures citizens against the constant spinning of laws. 

There were political reasons that the filibuster change and single payer did not move forward. Yet, in each case, mechanisms to protect stability in lawmaking prevailed. All this is a good thing in our politically turbulent time.

Editor’s Note: Joel Fox edited and published Fox&Hounds Daily, is an adjunct professor  at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Public Policy, and served as president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: