I’m noticing many people seem to believe that 60 votes are required to pass a bill in the Senate. This is not the case—only 51 votes, or a simple majority, are needed to pass a bill—so why would they think that? “The necessary 60” meme is one reason.
I saw a troubling meme—”the necessary 60-vote threshold”—in a recent New York Times article about an upcoming Senate vote on the “Buffett Rule,” and it has been popping up with more and more frequency in print and broadcast media reports. Like other reporters, this one had used this phrase without any context that indicates the “necessary” qualifier is related to ending debate, or overcoming a filibuster. That omission creates the impression that passing a bill in the Senate requires 60 votes.
I wrote the reporter to ask that he clarify this distinction in future articles, and to say why it is important to do so. After stating that he took my point, he added, “We do like our shorthand.”
Yes we do, apparently more than clear and accurate reportage.
Currently, 60 votes are required to end debate about a bill, called “invoking cloture” in the Senate’s arcane vernacular. That clears the way for the final step, voting on whether or not to pass the bill. Again, passage requires only a simple majority of 100 Senators.
Unlike the House of Representatives, the Senate has no time limit on debate. In olden times—which is to say before about 1995—Senators who had differing views on the substance of a bill would almost always agree to end debate. Then, the Senators would vote their conscience, and/or the will of the people they were elected to represent, on the actual passage of the bill. So they would allow bills to come up for a vote, and let the votes fall where they may.
Ah, but when the minority party wants to prevent the bill from ever coming to a vote, they might choose to filibuster, meaning to speak for an indefinite period of time or to “talk a bill to death.” This is called the “right of the minority party,” and although it is not in the Constitution, it is an old and honored Senate tradition and—until recently—used very rarely.
Originally, filibusters meant a Senator would hold the floor of the Senate for hours or even days on end. Today, simply the threat of a filibuster is enough to prevent taking a vote on passage of a bill. And thus, the “necessary” 60-vote threshold was born. Because if enough Senators of either party have agreed to prevent bills from coming up for a vote, then in effect they have manipulated the rules of the Senate. Thus it has come to be that in today’s US Senate, 60 is the new 51.
Because Republicans have threatened to filibuster nearly every bill that has come before the Senate during the Obama administration, the media has come to regard filibusters as unremarkable. It’s a “procedural issue,” and apparently that’s pretty boring, and certainly not newsworthy.
The out-of-context “necessary 60” meme perpetrates the belief that 60 votes are required by the Constitution to pass a bill in the Senate. When people believe this, they misunderstand how our government is supposed to work. They may even believe the obstructionism of the current Republican Senate minority is business-as-usual. It is not. The number of filibusters has skyrocketed exponentially since (can you guess?) Barack Obama was elected president.
Notice that the Republicans are willing to bend the Senate system like a pretzel in order to achieve their publicly stated aim: to prevent the passage of legislation during the Obama administration.
What’s even more important to understand, however, is that Republicans are even willing to forego passing bills that would accrue to their party’s or their state’s benefit, or that would solve the urgent problems plaguing our country. Their morbidly fascinating theory is that by creating the false impression that President Obama is a failure, they may possibly (hope against hope) create the false impression that the Republicans might be competent. This, they believe, will be more effective than, um, actually solving the problems plaguing the country.
After three and a half years of this demented approach, have they convinced you? To listen to some disaffected progressives, I’m afraid the method in the Republicans’ desperate madness may be working. Disappointment in a “failed” president serves to depress Democratic volunteer effort and votes.
This “necessary 60” meme misrepresents the rules of the Senate, but its real crime is obscuring the Republicans’ responsibility for obstructing the legislative process, for refusing to govern.
The Senate is not broken. It’s being held hostage.
Now, that’s newsworthy.