Super-Majority Requirements and Fiscal Outcomes (Tax Compromise Edition)

The pending compromise between the two parties on taxes and other policies underscores the fact that enhanced minority power (in this case, the filibuster power) helps contribute to fiscal irresponsibility.

The pending agreement over the extension of the Bush tax rates alongside the payroll tax cut, the extension of unemployment benefits and a few other sundry items is not exactly a deficit cutting maneuver.   The package will result in a combination of decreased revenues and increased spending.  I know it is an article of faith of some that tax cuts lead to increased revenues and there is the further hope that all of these things will stimulate the economy, yet we have to admit from an empirical point of view that the Bush tax rates, combined with the payroll cuts and unemployment benefits, will contribute to larger deficits over the next two years.  However, after a year in which fiscal responsibility and deficits in particular were watchwords for certain segments of the electorate, one would think that such a move would give those individuals pause (but perhaps not).

Now, none of this says that the actual policies agreed upon create a good, bad or indifferent outcome for the moment.  The point is to illustrate how the filibuster rules in the Senate actually help contribute to our fiscal circumstances.

To wit:  whenever there is a super-majority requirement to proceed on something, it is the minority that is empowered.  Because the minority party can use the power of the filibuster to shut down the legislative power of the United States, they are empowered to extract concessions from the majority.  It is axiomatic:  the more actors empowered in a given negotiation, the more concessions that have to be made.  Further, those concessions must be of a nature that they attract agreement without leading to members of your coalition defecting.  Under such circumstances, what is easier to provide?  The answer is more pleasure than pain.  Or, to be less cryptic:  some combination of lower taxes and higher spending tends to be the result of such a negotiation.

This is the dynamic that has helped sink California:  all budgets and tax increases have needed a 2/3rds majority to pass for decades.  Under such circumstances, more spending is a requisite to forge a compromise while raising new revenues becomes all the harder.  (It should be noted that the voters decided to go to a regular majority vote for the budget this November when they chose to pass Prop. 25 55.1%-44.9%).

At a minimum, this dynamic is worth pointing out as we continue to consider the Filibuster and whether it deserves reform.  I know a lot of conservatives consider it a tool for blocking Democratic policies that would expand the size of the government.  However, it must be understood that it creates a dynamic in which deals must be brokered, and deals require goodies (i.e., spending).

It is, in fact, a good thing that the budget cannot be filibustered under Senate rules, or we would likely have even larger deficits (and by extension, debt).

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Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. john personna says:

    I was surprised by sightings of the Bond Vigilantes yesterday. That could change everything.

    Or, it could just be a frightened farm boy who thought he saw the bad men, off in the distance ….

  2. Franklin says:

    It is axiomatic: the more actors empowered in a given negotiation, the more concessions that have to be made.

    Hmm, interesting and plausible theory. Is this well-known to be true (outside of the examples given above)?

  3. james says:

    @ Steven JFK tax cuts good idea ?

    How is 20% entitlements
    indenture 80% of self reliance

    With 14 trillion Debt?

    This looks like a 20/80 filibuster. ???

  4. Hmm, interesting and plausible theory. Is this well-known to be true (outside of the examples given above)?


    Let me ask: what is easier getting 2 people to agree on where to go to dinner or what movie to go see or 3? How about 4?

  5. @James:

    I must confess, I am not sure what you are trying to say.

    I will further add that I am not suggesting a method to evaluate tax policy.

  6. PD Shaw says:

    I think it’s much more the division of power, requiring three independent actors to approve legislation which makes broad compromise difficult for issues that necessarily need to be uniform like taxing. Spending can be directed to buy off the votes, but you can’t have different tax rates in New Hampshire from Vermont.

    Look, if the most important thing for Democrats was increasing marginal rates on those making more than $250,000, they would have done so when they had the cloture votes. They didn’t because it wasn’t that important and/or they are themselves divided on whether or not it’s a good idea during a recession.

    The Democrats are now bargaining in a weak position, with time running out, and really no incentive for Republicans to let anything pass when their hand will necessarily be stronger after next week.

  7. I think it’s much more the division of power, requiring three independent actors

    Separation of powers with checks and balances is relevant to a broader discussion yes. But my point has to do with the internal negotiations that take place within the legislative branch.

    The bottom line is that a system requiring 50%+1 votes is different from one in which 41% of one chamber can hold up the entire process. It changes the negotiating dynamic considerably.

  8. john personna says:

    “three independent actors” and the bond buyers.

    It isn’t a sure thing that they’ll change this course, but if the bond rout continues, they might.

  9. PD Shaw says:

    I don’t disagree that each additional vote requirement furthers the outcomes you describe, I just not I value it that much compared with other factors.

    For example, here in Illinois, where there is strong party discipline, the number for legislation is three: the governor, and the two majority leaders, all of which have been Democrats for several years. Illinois needs to increase taxes, and no no super-majority is needed to do it. However, at least one of the majority leaders won’t allow a vote to raise taxes without Republican support. Without at least a figleaf of bi-partisan support, the leader(s) feel the majorities may be compromised the next election.

    IOW, the existence of the cloture practices underlies a dynamic that would exist anyway.

  10. @PD

    I am not suggesting that the filibuster rules are causative but rather that they clearly further exacerbate the situation

  11. james says:

    @ Steven I must confess, I am not sure what you are trying to say.

    20% live off 80% that produce
    20% create 50% est. of national Debt.
    50% pay no Taxes

    Filibuster did not create 14 trillion Debt.

  12. @James:

    1. I never said the filibuster created the debt. I am pointing out that the institutional parameters in question exacerbate it.

    2. I understand the situation with income taxes, but that ignored payroll taxes, sales taxes, gasoline taxes, and any host of other taxes.

    3. The 80/20 thing is a cliche, not an argument (or much of anything else). I have no idea where you get the notion that 20% create 50% of the debt.

  13. james says:


    The 80/20 thing is a cliche, not an argument (or much of anything else).

    Notion: Requires more research.

  14. Austin says:

    Tyranny of the minority is no more attractive than tyranny of the majority. Its tyranny either way. Yes, procedure in the Congress is rather curious. Deem and pass is another good example.

  15. @Austin:

    I am not suggesting that this is a case of tyranny.

    A better formulation in this case is more accurate to say that I would prefer majority rule than to minority rule as a general principle.

  16. Austin says:

    I used the term tyranny for effect, not in the literal sense of despotic use of authority.