The New “Super Majority” Problem

Filed in National by on December 21, 2009

Despite all our differences on Health Care, the real problem is the new 60 vote or nothing framework.  This new Super Majority or nothing dilemma must be addressed if we ever want to govern.  Needing 60 votes to do anything is impossible mainly because it results in only two outcomes:

1. It stops legislation.
2. It only allows weakened legislation to pass.

Basically, it gives us two choice – Dead or neutered.  Krugman lays it out, complete with history lesson.

After all, Democrats won big last year, running on a platform that put health reform front and center. In any other advanced democracy this would have given them the mandate and the ability to make major changes. But the need for 60 votes to cut off Senate debate and end a filibuster — a requirement that appears nowhere in the Constitution, but is simply a self-imposed rule — turned what should have been a straightforward piece of legislating into a nail-biter. And it gave a handful of wavering senators extraordinary power to shape the bill.

Talk about power in the hands of the few.  Power that’s being abused by both sides of the aisle.

Some people will say that it has always been this way, and that we’ve managed so far. But it wasn’t always like this. Yes, there were filibusters in the past — most notably by segregationists trying to block civil rights legislation. But the modern system, in which the minority party uses the threat of a filibuster to block every bill it doesn’t like, is a recent creation.

The political scientist Barbara Sinclair has done the math. In the 1960s, she finds, “extended-debate-related problems” — threatened or actual filibusters — affected only 8 percent of major legislation. By the 1980s, that had risen to 27 percent. But after Democrats retook control of Congress in 2006 and Republicans found themselves in the minority, it soared to 70 percent.

70 percent.  That’s incredible.  It’s also what the Republicans now call governing, and, given their agenda, it’s highly effective.  Then again, Republicans have always loved the word “no.”  Just say no – to drugs, to sex… to any and all things proposed by the Democrats.  And this tactic serves them well by raising the bar to the fictional “must have” number of 60.  And it’s frustrating how every talking head drones on for hours about the need for 60 votes while ignoring the reason for that need.

I have mixed emotions when it comes to the filibuster, but something needs to change.  70 percent of threatened or actual filibusters is abusive.  It’s also a highly effective tool for the minority party to turn losing into winning – no matter what the majority of Amercans voted for.  Basically, it overturns an election.

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A stay-at-home mom with an obsession for National politics.

Comments (31)

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  1. I think the Democratic majority has been oddly passive on this issue. Why haven’t they been out there screaming “obstructionist?”

  2. anonone says:

    Why haven’t they been out there screaming “obstructionist?”

    Because they play the bad-cops for the Dems so the Dems can pass their corporatist agenda that both parties want.

  3. anon says:

    Why haven’t they been out there screaming “obstructionist?”

    If leadership was willing to scream at obstructionist Dems, we wouldn’t be in this fix.

    Dems voted the Senate rules (and leadership) at the beginning of the session. Plus, the filibuster votes are failing because of Dem defections, not Republican obstruction. So we really have no room to complain. Repubs are only taking advantage of Dem weakness – they know the weak Dem leadership is not capable of using its 60 votes.

    To end the filibuster problem, all Dems have to do is change the rules, elect new leadership, or both, at the next opportunity.

    Hey, after this HCR bill the next Senate will have less than 60 Dems so we will finally have a real excuse for not passing Democratic bills.

  4. anon says:

    Plus, the filibuster votes are failing because of Dem defections, not Republican obstruction.

    Actually I misspoke – the damage is being done mostly by filibuster threats, not by actual votes. Dems are watering down the Dem agenda because conservadems are saying “Boo!”

  5. wikwox says:

    As Krugman points out the “super majority” is a self imposed rule, it is nowhere in the constitution and could be eliminated by a simple procedural vote. Personally I would rather see the Dems call the Republicans and DINO’s bluff and say Go ahead and Filibuster, the whole world will be watching your petty antics. I believe they would tire of it as would the country as a whole.

  6. anon says:

    I think the “Republican obstruction” narrative must be working in the fundraising arena, or at least they think it will work. I have half a dozen fundraising emails from high-ranked Dems citing Republican obstruction as the reason I should send money to DSCC.

  7. PBaumbach says:

    The US Senate’s 60 votes to end filibuster rule is analogous to DE Senate’s desk drawer veto rule. It holds good legislation hostage.

    I’m all for giving the minority a voice, but adding protection to a minority (or a committee chairperson) should not prevent a majority from getting legislation passed. this can be called the tyranny of the minority.

    I can see some (deficit spending, treaty, impeachment, etc) legislation requiring a higher than majority vote. 70% of this year’s legislation is clearly an abuse.

    I agree that party leadership should be screaming from the rooftops that, with control of only 40% of US Senators, the Republicans are holding 70% of legislation hostage this year. While hard-core Republicans would consider this a compliment, Dems and Independents (who are critical to the mid-terms) could get charged up by this.

  8. xstryker says:

    I’d prefer a 55-vote threshhold. There has been value, historically, in the Senate’s ability to slow things down.

    The real problem is that corporate interests hold at least a 70 vote super-duper-majority.

  9. I would prefer it to go back to 67 votes so that you guys can’t get anything done without compromise then change it back to 60 when the Republicans take over. You didn’t have much of a problem when it was Republican oxen being gored.

  10. What anonone said (@ 11:08 am).

  11. As Krugman and others have noted, the Constitution is very clear on what needs a supermajority consensus. This is out of hand and has to be fixed. It shows that the GOP agenda right now is to kill Obama and the DEMs. They are not governing. This is not representing citizen’s interests.

  12. SusanG just posted this at DKos:
    David Axelrod was all over the teevee on the Sunday morning circuit, walking back his “insane” comments about Howard Dean and his criticism of the health care bill, talking up the legislation and trying to tamp down progressive base frustration with the watered-down measure.

    Little noticed in the flurry of appearances was his misleading commentary about the hallowed sanctity of the filibuster. James Fallows caught it though, and was disturbed:

    Good for David Gregory. Just now, on Meet the Press, he asked David Axelrod whether the Senate’s ” ‘majority’ equals 60 votes” current operating rules made sense.

    Not so good for David Axelrod. He immediately says, “These are time-honored rules.”

    Unt-uh. They are “time-honored” only in the sense of having been adopted awaaaaayyy-back at the dawn of time in 1975; and they have been of practical importance only really since the time of Bill Clinton — and with a sharp increase in the last three or four years.

    Can the chief political advisor at the White House really not know this about the filibuster? And if he knows the real story, why would he stick with this “time-honored” line? Either explanation is unsettling.

  13. Tom S says:

    Stopping legislation is a good thing. More govt is a bad thing. Glad our founding fathers got this one.

  14. ergonomic says:

    Tom … Stopping legislation is a good thing.

    Stopping any legislation? Seems a bit lawless and monolithic.

    And ‘our founding fathers’ ultimately decided that more government, at least more than what they wanted, was better.

    Remember the “Articles of Confederation”, with a central government so weak that the US almost fell apart before it got started?

    Of course I am assuming in writing all of this, that you are literate enough to read more than “this good, that bad”.

  15. Concerned says:

    Everyone, The hatred and threats against President Obama have to be dealt with. This morning on GretaWire Forums,a FoxNews site, a person stated that the President should be shot!
    This has got to be stopped. Get in touch with FoxNews and the authorities. This has gone too far!!

    http://gretawire.forums.foxnews.com/topic/as-head-of-our-militaryis-obama-guilty-of-deleliction-od-duty

  16. delacrat says:

    Is it not curious that 58 senate democrats (with the sure help of Independent, Bernie Sanders) can not muster 40 votes to block any war appropriations ?

  17. The senate adopted the 60 vote rule in 1975 as a restriction on the time honored tradition of unlimited debate. Before that it took 2/3’s and before that, there was no mechanism to stop even a single senator from a stopping legislation except his relinquishing the floor. You shouldn’t complain about the 60 vote rule especially when you have 60 votes. The problem is that you guys can’t even get your side together for long because the agenda is so extreme.

  18. Geezer says:

    “you guys can’t even get your side together for long because the agenda is so extreme.”

    Wrong reason AGAIN. Have you ever gotten one right?

  19. Scott P says:

    I personally like Tom Harkin’s idea for filibuster reform. Long story short, there would be successive votes for cloture, each a few days apart, each one requiring fewer votes to succeed. Eventually, only a simple majority would be needed to end debate. I think the whole proccess would take no more than a month. It preserves the rational for filibuster (that the minority gets a chance to have their voices heard) without forcing everything to come to a grinding halt. However, Senators on both sides like their toys and privleges, so I’m not holding my breath for its passage.

  20. Brian Shields says:

    So now that, nearly 5 months past your party’s self imposed deadline to push through radical reform legislation, you are finding that the only way to make it happen is to change the rules so that it is easier.

    Sounds desperate, much like President Obama’s willingness to accept any changes to the bill, as long as it says Health Care Reform on the top page.

    Quite honestly, the final bill could change to a 1000 page legislation amounting to a bowl of pudding, but as long as it has the title on it, then it was be signed and crowed from the hilltops as Obama fixed heathcare!”

  21. johnny longtorso says:

    The problem is that there’s no effort required in filibustering now. There is no actual speechifying going on, it’s just “I call filibuster!” and everything has to stop. It’s idiotic.

  22. just kiddin says:

    No Public Option, No Deal! “they” say even without a public option the bill still covers 30 million americans. The problem is that is a damned lie!

    What they are actually talking about is an individual mandate. Thats a section of law that requires every single american BUY health insurance or break the law and pay a penalty ie. fines.

    So, the bill “doesnt” cover 30 million instead it makes criminals if they dont buy from the corrupt health insurance companies that got us into this mess in the first place.

    Its a trillion dollar giveawy to insurance companies. Only a Public Option would provide competition needed to drive down costs and improve care. It will keep insurance companies honest by providing an affordable alternative americans can trust. Without a public option its a trillion dollar givaway. Pure and simple.

    Aint it grand when Ms. Ted Kennedy is drug out to put her stamp of approval on it? Of course, this plan is the Romney Massachusetts plan which is bankrupting that state. So why would we support legislation that we already have done a pilot program…the State of Massachusetts!I defy to check the results of how its working in Massachusetts. Kill this bill!

  23. xstryker says:

    David, our agenda is popular, not extreme. The problem is that it runs contrary to what the Senate’s corporate super-majority (all of the Republicans and half of the Democrats) wants. The ginormous profits of the industry are being pumped into lobbyists, astroturfing brigades, and false advertisements. Tom Carper is on your side, David, not mine.

  24. A. price says:

    im starting to accept this bill. I HATE it. i hate that there is no public option. i hate that there isnt a provision to tar and feather the execs of Aetna, i hate that we are being forced to use their “services”.

    but they hate it too. and here is something else

    It absolves the government of the job of failing. If health care is still broken, the only ones responsible are the insurance ponzis. This will cover more people and stop the scams from killing people for money, but it will also help expose them. maybe it can help show people there is no way these amoral jerks will ever do the right thing. maybe it will help grow public support for another way…. say a public option? we can try again. we need to try again. I guess change comes in baby steps.

  25. donviti says:

    we as citizens have allowed it to happen. Sadly.

    I also wish they would talk more about how the Democrats won big. They did it by buying out Republicans and asking them to basically become Dems in name only.

    Which gets them numbers on paper, but then in times like the Health Care bill feeds the stereotype.

    Democracy american style

  26. anonone says:

    Any pretense of Democracy died in 2000.

  27. donviti says:

    2000? 80’s my friend. When a movie star was elected president this empire went down hill

  28. anonone says:

    I did say pretense. :)

  29. Lizard says:

    is this the supermajority problem you are refering to??

    Senate Obamacare Provision Says Parts of It CAN’T BE CANCELED Without “Super Majority”

    US Senate/Jim DeMint/Hot Air/The Lid ^ | 12/21/09 | The Lid
    Many opponents of Obamacare have been saying it doesn’t matter if it gets passed, if the GOP takes over in 2010 they will repeal it. Sorry that will not be possible. The bill making its way through the Senate includes a clause that requires a two-thirds vote to amend or repeal certain sections of the bill. Section 3403 of Senator Harry Reid’s amendment (page 1020) (A) IN GENERAL.—It shall not be in order in the Senate or the House of Representatives to consider any bill, resolution, or amendment, pursuant to this subsection or conference2 report thereon, that fails to satisfy…

  30. cassandra_m says:

    And of course, RICO here is repeating the GOP lie of the day.

    For the fun of it, cut and paste this text:
    Section 3403 of Senator Harry Reid’s amendment (page 1020) (A) IN GENERAL

    into google. You’ll find page after page of the wingnut blogs getting their poutrage on at this.

    But if you were to go look at the section in question — you see instructions for the establishment and operation of the Independent Medicare Commission (intended to provide proposals to curb medicare costs). It takes a 2/3 Senate majority to reject the year’s proposals from this Commission. Sort of the way BRAC works.

    But hey — we already know that RICO is delighted to be lied to by his repub handlers.