Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Al Franken makes it 60. But do Senate Super-Majorities Matter?

Sort of.

Democrats today are celebrating Al Franken's long-awaited victory as Minnesota's newest United States Senator. The cheers are not just for him. With Franken, Democrats will now number 58 in the Senate. This, along with two friendly Independents, will give them enough seats and potential votes - 60 - to block Republican filibusters and really control the Chamber.
That's real power. And it sounds great.
But don't believe it.
Over the years, we've had plenty of Congresses with large, lopsided partisan majorities. Some did great things. Others failed miserably. What mattered wasn't the size of the Majority, but whether it reflected a true national consensus, and whether it did its job.
The Scorecard on Cloture
First, the raw numbers.
The US Senate has always loved filibusters. Up until 1919, there was no way to stop a single Senator from talking his heart out and endlessly delaying a bill, thus killing it. Cloture, as adopted in 1919, allowed a majority of Senators to end debate, but only if they could muster a two-thirds vote. This was rare. From 1919 until 1970, Senators invoked Cloture only 8 times. Filibuster reigned supreme.
Then, in 1975, the Senate lowered its Cloture target to three-fifths, or 60 votes. Since then, cloture has been invokes literally hundreds of times, including 61 successful clotures during the 110th Congress (2006-7) alone.
During this post-1975 period, the only time either Democrats or Republicans had "filibuster-proof" majorities (60 or mote) was the four years 1975-1979: the Gerald Fold and Jimmy Carter era. During those four years, Senate leaders filed 62 cloture motions, voted on cloture 40 times, won on 20, and lost on 20. Not much to brag about. [Click here to see year-by-year votes for the enitre priod 1919-2009.]
The Biggest Majorities
This isn't to say that big Senate majorities can't produce terrific progress, clearing logjams for needed change. Three times in American history, we have seen large, sustained Super-Majorities in the U.S. Senate that made a difference:
  • Civil War and Reconstruciton Era (1861-1875), when Republicans held overwhelming majorities, peaking in 1869 at 61-11 (equivalent to an 85-15 margin today);
  • The FDR "New Deal" era and World War II (1933-1947), when Democrats held the whip hand by as much as 75-17 in 1937; and
  • From 1959 through 1969, when Democrats consistently held margins above 60 seats, reaching 68 in 1966, the New Frontier and Great Society years. [Click here for the full list of party breakdowns, 1855-2009.]
These were creative periods with capable presidents (Licoln, FDR, Kennedy, Johnson) and national direction. They produced groundbreaking innovations. Arguably, the lower standard allowed some sloppy legislation and bad policy choices, but at least they managed to make decisions in times of crisis. Where they made bad ones, they were accountable.
And today?
Al Franken's 60th vote will matter only if Democrats -- Obama included -- use it wisely and skillfully. Their majority is fragile. But on any Senate vote, there are moderate Republicans to woo for every conservative Democrat lost. Is the country united behind fundamental change? What say you, Obama?
That's politics at the highest level. Now we'll see if they are up to it.

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