Why do they keep saying on the news that the recent Senate election in Massachusetts threatens health care legislation because it leaves the Democrats in the Senate with only 59 votes? I’m no mathematician, but there are only 100 Senators – isn’t 59 more than half of 100?
The reason the legislation is threatened is that the Democrats are claiming that they can’t vote on anything that the Republicans threaten to filibuster, because it takes 60 votes to stop a filibuster, end debate (a move known as cloture), and demand a vote. This is unfortunate, since the Republicans in the current Senate threaten to filibuster virtually every piece of legislation.
The failure of the Senate to pass health care legislation has shone a light on the anti-democratic nature of the Senate. Every state has two Senators, regardless of the size of their population. That means that states like Wyoming (population 532,668) have the same number of Senators as states like New York, where there are more than 36 times as many people (population 19,541,453). Republican senators who represent 154,649,275 people in 28 states are blocking the legislation of Democratic senators who represent 227,195,202 people in 35 states.
Frustrated with this lack of proportional representation, some have proposed the abolition of the filibuster. As you can see from this chart, this constant invocation of the filibuster is a recent phenomenon – the current Senate minority has blocked voting through threats of a filibuster more than any other Senate in history. So there may be some merit in the argument that the situation has changed and the filibuster is now obsolete.
On the other hand, there are ways that the Senate can demand an up or down vote even when a filibuster has been threatened. I think that if Democrats wanted to get something done, they would get it done. The Democrats’ habit of blaming the Republicans for their own inaction is one of the reasons for the extreme disaffection among ordinary citizens.
A recent Fresh Air interview with filibuster expert Gregory Kroger gives a thorough explanation of the history and details of the filibuster and provides ideas for how a majority party can overcome it if they really want to.
Here’s the audio.