As I write this it is not yet known whether the Republicans have garnered a majority in the Senate or expanded their majority in the House. Regardless of how the election turned out, however, it really won’t matter — at least not until we change the rules by which these folks play the game.
I think most people are aware that Congress is in a quagmire. According to a Rasmussen poll last month, just 8 percent approved of the job Congress is doing — or not doing might be a more accurate way to put it. Is that because of all the horrendous, unpopular legislation they’ve been passing? No, it’s because for the last four years Congress has done practically nothing.
People thought the 112th Congress, elected in 2010, was bad — and it was. Up to that time, the 112th was the least active group in modern American history, passing just 220 bills into law. Their inability to make decisions led the country to the brink on a government shut down; drove us to the edge of the fiscal cliff; and cooked up something called the sequester that was analogous to holding a gun to their own heads in an effort to force themselves to make a decision. Even that didn’t work and the result was a trillion dollars got whacked from the budget across the board. Nice job!
But then came the 113th, elected in 2012, and the hits just kept on coming. By the end of July it was already on pace to beat the 112th’s record of futility — and then they went on vacation for much of the last three months.
It’s not that there aren’t issues of great concern with broad public support where action could be taken. Some 67 percent of Americans think that income inequality is a problem. Some 73 percent support increasing the minimum wage to $10.10/hour. Another 71 percent believe there should be a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants. Yet, nothing gets done. Why? Because they’ve essentially given a veto power to the minority in each chamber.
The Senate has done this through use of the filibuster — a term fittingly derived from the Dutch word for pirate or robber. You’ll find no reference to the filibuster in the U.S. Constitution. It derives from the rules of order adopted by the Senate itself. It allows a senator or group of senators to prevent a vote on a bill by holding the floor. For the first 186 years of the Republic, this was done by talking for as long as you could, a la Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Until 1917, there was no way to stop this foolishness. Then the Senate created the cloture by which a super majority could vote to end debate and move to a vote. Until cloture was successfully enacted or the filibuster ended of its own volition, the Senate was unable to move forward with anything else.
But, in 1975 another rules change made it much easier to filibuster and much easier to bring the gears of the Senate to a grinding halt. In that year the “virtual filibuster” was created in which it was no longer necessary to talk a bill to death. Not only did this “silent filibuster” become possible, they also started using “secret holds” which allow a single Senator to stop action on a bill. Needless to say, the number of filibusters went through the roof and the Senate has been unable to do much of anything due to the need for a super majority to enact just about anything.
The House has thrown its own wrench into the works. Known as the “Hastert Rule,” named for former House Speaker Denny Hastert, it bottles up any legislation that doesn’t have the support of the majority of the majority. What this means is that legislation that has the support of 100 percent of the minority party and 49 percent of the majority party, never sees the light of day because the Speaker won’t let it come to the floor. Using the makeup of the 113th Congress, 114 Republicans can block action supported by the other 321 congressmen. By allowing the minority to subvert the will of the majority, nothing gets done.
Despite the leanings of small government conservatives, since the days of Franklin Roosevelt the American people have expected their government to take action to remedy problems and to improve the quality of life. They are sick of the constant arguing and inaction. Some blame this on the personalities involved and there’s certainly some of that. But the underlying problem is the perversion of the democratic process that plagues both houses of Congress. Until you change that, who you send to Congress won’t matter.
Alan J. Ortbals is president and publisher of the Illinois Business Journal