The Alabama political majority whines a lot about being in the national minority. Wednesday’s vote on gun-control measures in the U.S. Senate was a reminder that the state wields far more influence than it would if power were based on population.
Unable to collect the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster, a frustrated majority of senators watched every single gun-control measure fizzle. Fifty-four senators cast votes for the Manchin-Toomey bill, but the 46 who opposed it — including Alabama’s two senators — won the day.
Alabama’s self-perceived status as an oppressed minority is ingrained in its political discourse. The state GOP — which has absolute control over Alabama government — made, “We Dare Defend Our Rights” its motto for 2013.
While the political majority in Alabama — at least among those who vote — is indeed a national minority, it holds far more power than it would in a pure democracy.
One of the gun-control amendments provides a good example. The amendment would have required background checks for people purchasing guns at gun shows and on the Internet. The unobtrusive checks have long been required for people who purchase guns from dealers. Their sole purpose is to prevent sales to convicted felons and the mentally ill. The amendment would not have applied to gifts within families, but it would have closed a gaping loophole through which 40 percent of guns are purchased.
It is a common-sense measure that is wildly popular. Nine out of 10 Americans can’t agree on anything, but they agree on an expansion of background checks. Those who own guns and those who don’t agree they want reasonable steps taken to make it more difficult for felons and the mentally ill to access guns.
One obstacle to passage was the filibuster rule — not included in the Constitution — which meant that 60 Senate votes were needed to pass the amendment rather than 51.
The Constitution gives disproportionate power to small states through the makeup of the Senate. Alabama gets two votes. California has eight times Alabama’s population, but instead of 16 votes, it also gets two.
Alabama’s outsized political influence does not end there. Even if background checks had passed the Senate, they almost certainly would have died in the House. That’s not because a majority in the House opposes the checks — to the contrary — but because a majority of Republicans oppose them. Under the Hastert Rule, the Speaker of the House generally blocks bills that a majority of his caucus does not support. So just as a minority of senators can block popular legislation, a minority of representatives can do the same.
Alabamians may complain about their minority status, but the fact is they have outsized power in national politics. The defeat of the background-check amendment is an unfortunate result.