What if we had a democracy where the will of the majority couldn’t carry the day?  What if a small minority of legislators had the power to block any law they didn’t like?  It sounds crazy—and yet it’s the very principle underpinning Tim Eyman’s latest initiative, I-1053, up for a vote in Washington’s upcoming election.

Consider, just for a moment, the state’s efforts to rein in runaway lending practices.  On the heels of the subprime lending meltdown, it became clear that the mortgage industry had grown reckless and out of control. Most heartbreaking were the stories of mortgage brokers who preyed on unsophisticated customers:  pushing home-buyers towards loans that paid the brokers handsomely, but that saddled homeowners with undisclosed fees and huge risks of cost escalation.

Olympia Capitol building - Flickr user fusionpandaSo in 2008 Washington state started cracking down on predatory lending practices.  The lynchpin was Senate Bill 6381, which created new protections for borrowers—requiring mortgage brokers, for example, to disclose previously hidden fees that they had been charging borrowers for the “privilege” of taking on risky loans.  SB 6381 earned overwhelming support:  the full Senate approved the bill by a 29 to 19 vote, and the house passed it unanimously—clear evidence that the state’s legislators thought that abusive lending practices had gone too far, and that Washington’s homeowners deserved fair and responsible treatment from the mortgage industry.

Now, imagine if that overwhelming support still wasn’t enough to get a law on the books.  Imagine that as few as one-third of the members of either the Washington House or Senate could block any mortgage reform bill, no matter how necessary or well-designed.  The three-fifths majority that SB 6381 earned in the Senate simply wouldn’t be enough to break that kind of legislative logjam.

But the idea that a tiny minority of legislators have the right to decide what happens in Olympia is exactly what Initiative 1053 would set in stone.  I-1053 would render the will of the majority irrelevant, giving one-third of the legislators in either the House or the Senate veto power over legislation.  Although I-1053 applies only to legislation that would close tax loopholes or raise revenue, it advances a frighteningly undemocratic vision of governance: as long as lobbyists can convince just a third of the members of either the House or Senate to oppose a bill, the bill shouldn’t become law.

Mortgage reform is just one example of widely-supported legislation that wouldn’t have passed under the distorted version of democracy represented by I-1053.

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  • Take Senate Bill 5028 from the 2003 legislative session, which clarified that withdrawing water for agricultural use doesn’t count as “pollution”—clearly, a position that many rural folks east of the Cascades would favor.  SB-5028 passed the Senate narrowly, by a 26-22 vote.  Under today’s rules, a clear majority supported the bill, and it became law.  But under I-1053’s distorted vision of democracy—where one-third opposition is sufficient to kill any law—it would have lost in a rout.

    Or consider SB 5049 from the 2005 session, requiring landlords to give tenants information about the health risks of mold in their dwellings.  The bill passed 30-14 in the Senate, exceeding the two-thirds threshold. But the vote in the House was a 60-34—just enough “no” votes to doom the bill.

    I could go on and on, and on. A quick review of the legislative record turned up at least 126 laws approved over Washington’s past 2 legislative sessions that would never have been approved if I-1053-style minority rule had been in effect.

    We can take the idea a bit further.  Imagine what democracy would be like if all public decisions had to achieve two-thirds support.  Candidate elections would be virtually impossible.  The tough-fought compromises reflected in the major laws that underpin our current understanding of the social compact— everything from civil rights to spending on infrastructure to major decisions about war and peace—would all be moot. It’s not much of an overstatement to say that the basic idea behind I-1053—that only supermajorities can make decisions—could be far closer to anarchy than to representative democracy.

    Of course, I-1053’s effects are limited:  just one state, and just for closing tax loopholes or raising revenue.  Still, Washington’s voters consider carefully whether they truly agree with the broad, deeply undemocratic principle that Tim Eyman wants to inject into the state’s political discourse. Are we truly willing to abandon our democratic ideals, just to make it harder to collect a little money from the polluters who back I-1053?

    [Many thanks to Japhet Koteen, without whose research this post would not have been possible.  Photo of Washington State Capitol building from Flickr user fusionpanda, distributed under a Creative Commons license.]