The still- silent majority
There’s little incentive for the minority to do anything but obstruct and delay in the politically polarized US Senate
By Barry Gordon 02/10/2011
Two weeks ago, the US Senate had a clear opportunity to enter the 21st century … and turned it down.
Three courageous Democratic senators — Iowa’s Tom Harkin, Oregon’s Jeff Merkley and New Mexico’s Tom Udall — put forward a set of proposals to reform the Senate’s current filibuster rules, supported by 26 of their colleagues. They promoted what they referred to as “the constitutional option,” by which a simple majority of senators could revise the rules of the Senate at the beginning of each new Congress.
These reforms did not do away with the filibuster or drastically impinge on the rights of the minority. To the contrary, they would have provided greater ability for the minority to propose amendments and have them voted on. But they would have transformed the modern filibuster — which is really no more than a threat to filibuster, or, in less charitable terms, extortion — by returning to the simple idea that senators had to actually hold the floor by talking and that, at the end of that exercise, a bill could be passed by a simple majority. They also did not attempt to lower the current 60-vote requirement to close debate known as “cloture.” The hope was that if a true “talking” filibuster was required, the need for cloture votes would be greatly diminished. The automatic need for a supermajority to pass virtually every important piece of legislation would then not necessarily be taken for granted.
These proposals were modest, to say the least. Yet, when it came to permitting a vote on them by a simple majority, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and several other Senate Democrats balked. Instead, Reid negotiated a “gentleman’s agreement” with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that was almost entirely cosmetic in nature. And together, they insisted on a two-thirds supermajority to change current Senate rules.
The Senate apparently does not believe in majority rule. The Founders did. In fact, the role of the vice president is to preside over the Senate and to vote only if the senators are “equally divided.” Obviously, in a Senate of 100 members, the vice president could break a tie and pass a bill with 51 votes, a mere majority. When the drafters of the Constitution wanted a supermajority, they said so and gave very specific reasons. They never envisioned a 60-vote threshold becoming the norm in one chamber of Congress.
Why does any of this matter? Admittedly, it’s pretty arcane stuff. Remember when President Obama campaigned on the slogan “Change We Can Believe In”? He probably should have revised that to “Change We Can Get 60 Senators to Go Along With.”
Obama took a lot of heat last year for not living up to his slogan. The change we got, many supporters believed, was piecemeal, incremental and watered down. While there were certainly those who felt the government was doing too much, contrary to popular myth, a majority seemed to feel that he did not do enough. Most recent polls show that far more people feel that the health reform law did too little as opposed to those who think it did too much. Most analysts have complained that the financial reform legislation didn’t go far enough to address the real problems. And attempts at solving other major issues didn’t even get to the floor.
I know. You think it’s supposed to be that way. After all, didn’t George Washington say that the Senate was like the “saucer” meant to cool down the piping-hot legislation coming from the unruly House of Representatives? Well, a saucer is one thing; a deep freeze is something else. In today’s Senate, with more ideological political parties, there’s little incentive for the minority to do anything but obstruct and delay.
This is not a partisan issue. Let’s try a simple thought experiment. It’s 2013 and we now have President Romney (or whoever) and a Republican majority in both houses of Congress. And let’s say that there are 40-plus Democratic senators. You want limited government, and at first blush it may seem like less activity is better than more. But do you want to maintain the status quo?
Definitely not. So President Romney proposes to kill some government agencies, privatize parts of the social safety net and flatten the tax code. All of that requires action. But the Democratic minority thwarts every single thing the new president tries to do. Of course, you liberals are thrilled. But then, you didn’t win the election.
Generally, we don’t vote for people to just hold the line. We vote for those who will shake up the system, who will fight for our values and beliefs, and who will move the country in the direction — any direction — in which we wish the country to go. If those who won the election don’t get the opportunity to pursue the agenda they campaigned on, then how can we hold them accountable for the success or failure of that agenda? When we don’t get the change we voted for, we often conclude that voting really doesn’t matter.
Elections should have consequences. And but for some centuries-old rules that are nowhere to be found in our Constitution, they would. And our democratic republic would be the better for it.
Barry Gordon teaches at Cal State LA and is the co-host of “City Beat” on KPAS. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.