In Britain, Canada and Jamaica, the party that wins an election is expected to implement its platform. If enough members of the governing party vote against a major piece of legislation, causing it to fail, the prime Minister has to step down and call another election.
In America, that’s not the case. President Obama’s Democrats have turned against him time and again with no consequences except gridlock. Another reason for the frustrating state of American politics is the power that U.S. senators have managed to acquire over the years. One senator can block the appointment of all the President’s appointments, for example. And despite having a minority in the Senate, Republicans have been able to frustrate the majority party’s entire agenda.
One reason for this is a quaint custom known as the filibuster. If you’ve seen a film called “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” you will remember how James Stewart stood for days talking endless gibberish and reading randomly to stall the Senate’s proceedings and prevent some miscarriage of justice. How romantic. And how unrealistic.
Today, there’s no need for such melodrama. Any senator can block legislation merely by saying they plan to filibuster. And the Republicans have decided to filibuster all legislation that the President supports. They figure that by making him totally ineffective they can win the White House in 2012. To get anything passed, the President now needs 60 Senate votes, the number required to override a filibuster.
Until a former magazine centerfold named Scott Brown won the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts, the Democrats had those 60 members – but not their votes. Some of them – known as Blue Dog Democrats – sided with the Republicans on important issues. (Actually, two of the senators were Independents who caucused with the Democrats. And one of those two, Joe Liberman, turned out to be a traitor.)
You might be wondering why the fathers of the American Constitution set up such an unworkable system. The answer is they didn’t. Like Topsy, the thing just “growed.”
Why do the Democrats put up with it? They were elected to govern the country so why don’t they straighten out the mess in the Senate and start governing? Beats me.
Robert Kuttner, the co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect magazine, points out in yesterday’s Huffington Post brief:
It isn’t written into the Constitution, and in its modern form it only dates to 1975, when the Senate changed the rules to permit a single senator to require a supermajority of 60 votes on a given measure simply by threatening to hold the floor indefinitely, even if the senator couldn’t be bothered to show up.
Before that rule change, you actually had to keep talking and tie up the Senate in order to filibuster. Today, you need only to declare your intent to filibuster, and any measure can be made to require 60 votes. As a consequence, the number of filibustered bills every session has risen from around 7 before 1975 to about 100.
But, for reasons that escape me, the Democratic leadership doesn’t seem to be listening. The Republicans are able to block any piece of legislation Obama proposes. And you can bet that’s exactly what they will do – unless some Democrat with a backbone decides they’ve had enough of this nonsense and leads a charge to get rid of the silly filibuster rule.