In a discussion with Guy Raz this afternoon on Weekend All Things Considered, after he evoked a chagrining personal admission*, we touched on a point that I think needs to be elevated from a background/insider's issue to absolutely first-tier consideration in mainstream political discourse. It has to do with the distorting and destructive effect of the Senate's modern "60 votes to get anything done" system of operation.
I say "modern" because, contrary to the tone of most day-by-day political reportage, this is not some timeless feature of American constitutional design. In newspaper accounts, you read things like this -- the second paragraph of an (otherwise very good) NYT story today on the struggles over health care reform:
"To get the 60 votes needed to pass their bill, Democrats scrapped the idea of a government-run public insurance plan, cherished by liberals, and replaced it with a proposal for nationwide health plans, which would be offered by private insurers under contract with the government."
Of course, the number of votes the Democrats need to pass their bill is a simple majority -- 51 votes at most. ("At most" because a 50-50 tie would be broken by the Vice President, who of course is now a Democrat.) The reason we talk and act as if "majority" = "60 votes" is that in the past 25 years, something that was an exceptional, last-ditch measure has turned into a damaging routine.
The history here is well known to everyone interested in politics but worth summarizing. For most of the first 190 years of the country's operation, U.S. Senators would, in unusual circumstances, try to delay a vote on measures they opposed by "filibustering" -- talking without limit or using other stalling techniques. For most of those years, the Senate could cut off the filibuster and force a vote by imposing "cloture," which took a two-thirds majority of those voting (at most 67 of 100 Senators). In 1975, the Senate adopted a rules change to allow cloture with 60 votes, and those are the rules that still prevail.
The significant thing about filibusters through most of U.S. history is that they hardly ever happened. But since roughly the early Clinton years, the threat of filibuster has gone from exception to routine, for legislation and appointments alike, with the result that doing practically anything takes not 51 but 60 votes. So taken for granted is the change that the nation's leading paper can offhandedly say that 60 votes are "needed to pass their bill." In practice that's correct, but the aberrational nature of this change should not be overlooked. (The Washington Post's comparable story is more precise: "A bloc of 60 votes is the exact number required to choke off the filibuster, the Senate minority's primary source of power, and the GOP's best hope of defeating the bill.")