To the heap of arguments being amassed for torching the U.S. Senate's filibuster rule, permit me to add the Minnesota Legislature's checkered experience with bonding bills.
"Huh?" you say. What do public works bills in St. Paul have to do with the U.S. Senate's rule that 60 votes are needed to end debate and proceed to a vote on a bill?
Please bear with me: Bonding bills at the State Capitol and just about any politically sensitive, non-money bill in the U.S. Senate have one de facto thing in common. They require a supermajority — coincidentally, both 60% — to become law.
Both of these lawmaking conventions arose in the 19th century and sprang from sentiments not all deemed worthy today, including states' rights and aversion to public debt. Both work to empower the minority, giving those who lost the previous election what amounts to veto power over the actions of those who won.
And both supermajority requirements are getting skeptical scrutiny in the harsh light of latter-day partisanship. They're begging a question: How much minority rule can a legitimate democracy stand?
For more than a quarter-century in Washington and nearly as long in Minnesota, obstruction has been a favored tactic for legislative minorities. Minority caucuses have been increasingly loath to contribute to the enactment of high-profile bills, for fear voters will credit the majority party to the minority's disadvantage.
Minority pols also perceive that many voters in their base would rather allow problems to fester than see enacted the remedies preferred by their political opposition.
The politicians who play this game have their eyes on the next election, and they've kept playing it because in that sense, it's often worked. But in the long run, excessive minority rule has damaged the nation's ability to govern itself. Consider the years of futile federal wheel-spinning on immigration reform, gun control, health care and, more recently and urgently, voting rights.
Consider the dispiriting conclusion of a March 13 editorial in the London-based Economist magazine: "American democracy looks tired. … The United States is no longer viewed as the beacon of democracy it once was." The editorial recommended scrapping the Senate filibuster.
Minority empowerment hasn't done Minnesota's infrastructure much good lately either.
A supermajority requirement was first attached to bonding bills in the state's original 1858 Constitution, at a time when the young state was giddily lending money to railroads. To make a long and painful story short, those loans did not work out well for Minnesota.
No serious move to alter the bonding supermajority requirement has been mounted since. But because a supermajority could not be assembled, the Legislature failed to pass bonding bills in 2004, 2007 (until after a bridge fell and southeastern Minnesota flooded, when a small bill sneaked through a special session), 2016 and 2019. Until a very belated bonding bill passed last October, it appeared that 2020 would wind up on that ignominious list.
Why ignominy? Because providing and maintaining public infrastructure is a core function of modern state government. Managing that obligation efficiently requires action on bonding every year. Skipping a year — or downsizing a bill to satisfy minority demands — does not save taxpayers money. It merely delays needed projects, usually running up their costs and/or allowing for continued deterioration of essential facilities.
I asked four former chairs of the Legislature's capital investment committees — two Republicans and two DFLers, two House members and two senators — whether they would strike the supermajority requirement from the state Constitution if they could. They answered with a range of ambivalence and longing for the bipartisanship that the requirement was intended to bring.
The two DFLers — former Sen. LeRoy Stumpf of Plummer and Rep. Alice Hausman of St. Paul — were open to dropping the supermajority rule from the State Constitution. But both think changes could be made in crafting bonding bills that would yield a more reliable result, short of constitutional change.
The two Republicans — Rep. Dean Urdahl of Grove City and Sen. Dave Senjem of Rochester — are more sanguine about the bonding supermajority.
"It brings both sides together and that makes for a better bill," Senjem said. "Make that, it usually makes for a better bill."
Among them, though, only Urdahl considers the U.S. Senate's filibuster rule worth preserving in Washington. In fact, Urdahl would be willing to bring it to Minnesota on a trial basis, for a select few bills.
The others are joining the swelling chorus for removing the impediment to a functional legislative branch of the federal government that the filibuster has become. Stumpf said the filibuster is preventing national progress on a host of fronts. Senjem said it allows members of Congress to cast irresponsible votes, knowing that bills won't become law.
"This has got to end," Hausman said about the filibuster's chokehold on lawmaking. "It is hurting the country. That's ultimately what governance is about, the well-being of the country. It's not about who's in charge."
That's a chorus I'd join.
Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at email@example.com.