Blocking the Vote

A big country has big problems—but the systematic failure of congressional leadership is making them impossible to tackle.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) speaks to members of the media after the weekly Senate Democratic Policy Committee luncheon January 14, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Reid said he hoped the Senate can vote on the $1.1 trillion spending bill on this Friday. 
National Journal
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
July 25, 2014, 1 a.m.

A friend of mine who has been a lob­by­ist for years—and wants to re­main an­onym­ous so he can con­tin­ue do­ing it a while longer—re­cently made the ar­gu­ment to me that the cur­rent Con­gress is not, in fact, the least pro­duct­ive in U.S. his­tory. But you do have to go quite a way back: He says the Ninth Con­gress, from 1805 to 1807, dur­ing Thomas Jef­fer­son’s second term in of­fice, did even less, be­cause the gov­ern­ment had no money left after the Louisi­ana Pur­chase. (As a Louisi­anan, I think it was a worth­while in­vest­ment.)

Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id. (Alex Wong/Getty Im­ages)In any case, it would not be hard to fill up a five-day sym­posi­um on Wash­ing­ton dys­func­tion; heck, it wouldn’t take much ef­fort to make it a semester-long course. Some prob­lems are unique to the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives, oth­ers to the Sen­ate, and still more to the White House. Then, of course, there are the more-sys­tem­ic prob­lems, such as the in­tense par­tis­an­ship that has be­come so pre­val­ent in the last 30 years, in­fect­ing both cham­bers, taint­ing re­la­tion­ships, and mak­ing ad­dress­ing big is­sues more dif­fi­cult.

One such prob­lem can be laid squarely at the feet of con­gres­sion­al lead­ers—spe­cific­ally, those who call the shots on what reaches the House and Sen­ate floors and what doesn’t. In the old days, the gen­er­al sen­ti­ment was that if you didn’t want to cast tough, con­tro­ver­sial votes, you shouldn’t have run for Con­gress. Mak­ing hard calls and hav­ing to deal with the con­sequences was part of the job de­scrip­tion. Nowadays, however, that job de­scrip­tion has changed to such an ex­tent that one of the top re­spons­ib­il­it­ies for the lead­er of a ma­jor­ity party in either cham­ber is to pro­tect one’s mem­bers from cast­ing tough votes. The fact that a bind­ing vote on the Key­stone XL pipeline has not reached the Sen­ate floor is a per­fect ex­ample. And free-trade ad­voc­ates should not hold their breath wait­ing for trade-pro­mo­tion au­thor­ity or the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship to make it to the floor for a vote; both meas­ures are strongly sup­por­ted by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion but viewed war­ily by cer­tain Sen­ate Demo­crats.

The folly of this is that a big coun­try has big prob­lems, and deal­ing with them usu­ally in­volves mak­ing de­cisions that will ali­en­ate a seg­ment of voters. To shield House mem­bers or sen­at­ors from dif­fi­cult votes is to ef­fect­ively ab­dic­ate re­spons­ib­il­ity, to simply say, “No, thanks. I’ll pass on deal­ing with this.”

In the new polit­ic­al or­der, noth­ing is more im­port­ant than either win­ning or hold­ing a ma­jor­ity. The ra­tionale is that the oth­er party is so wrong­headed, if not evil, that if it were to pre­vail, then the im­me­di­ate fu­ture—at least—of the Re­pub­lic would be en­dangered, so any­thing that pre­vents the oth­er party from cap­tur­ing or hold­ing a ma­jor­ity is jus­ti­fied, even ne­ces­sary. Not un­ex­pec­tedly, the res­ult is grid­lock.

For Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id, the pre­ferred tac­tic is to “fill the amend­ment tree” to pre­vent con­sid­er­a­tion of any­thing that he doesn’t want to reach the floor. The non­par­tis­an Con­gres­sion­al In­sti­tute de­scribes it well: “At any giv­en time, the Sen­ate may only con­sider a cer­tain num­ber of amend­ments to a bill or to oth­er amend­ments. Their or­der of pri­or­ity can be de­pic­ted on a chart that looks like a num­ber of branches com­ing from a tree trunk. When each line has an amend­ment, the ‘tree’ is full and no oth­er amend­ment can be offered. The Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er has the right to be re­cog­nized first in a de­bate, so he can re­peatedly of­fer amend­ments—wheth­er they are sub­stan­tial or not—to fill the tree. Re­pub­lic­ans, nat­ur­ally, have been fum­ing about Sen­at­or Re­id’s ag­gress­ive use of the tac­tic, but it also blocks Demo­crat­ic amend­ments.”

In re­cent weeks, Re­id even filled the tree to pre­vent a vote on Demo­crat­ic Sen. Kay Hagan’s Sports­men’s and Pub­lic Out­door Re­cre­ation Tra­di­tions Act, a fairly in­noc­u­ous pack­age of hunt­ing, fish­ing, and pub­lic-lands meas­ures. The testy re­la­tion­ship between Re­id and Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell—the phrase “barely speak­ing to each oth­er” is routinely used—only wor­sens the cham­ber’s in­ab­il­ity to act.

The par­al­lel prob­lem on the Re­pub­lic­an side is the so-called Hastert Rule in the House, the leg­acy of former Speak­er Den­nis Hastert. It isn’t ac­tu­ally a rule; rather, it’s a prac­tice of not bring­ing a meas­ure to the floor un­less it has the sup­port of a ma­jor­ity of the ma­jor­ity party’s mem­bers. Thus the House, which was de­signed to have ma­jor­ity rule, now has plur­al­ity rule, sub­vert­ing that cham­ber’s abil­ity to get things done.

Much of this is rooted, of course, in a pub­lic that is more po­lar­ized along par­tis­an lines than ever be­fore. The di­vi­sions in Con­gress are mim­ick­ing the prob­lems of an in­creas­ingly di­vided Amer­ica. The sharp di­vi­sion we see today en­cour­ages lead­ers to be­have in ways that their pre­de­cessors would have des­pised.

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