The Collective
Sunday, November 22, 2009
By Steven L. Taylor

In the Washington Examiner Byron York writes:  Why was it so hard for Dems even to start health care debate?

The extraordinary thing about the dramatic events surrounding the health care bill in the Senate is that there was any drama at all. Lawmakers were simply voting to begin debate on the Democratic version of health care reform. Just begin debate — not end it, and not move on to a final vote.

If Democrats, with a 60-vote majority in the Senate, had not been able to begin debate on the top Democratic policy priority in a generation — well, that would have been a devastating turn of events, both for the party and for President Obama. And yet just starting debate proved difficult, and only on the last day did the 60th Democratic vote fall in place in favor of beginning the process.

I asked a high-ranking Republican Senate source whether it was really that hard to get the Democratic votes together. Could it have been a media-fed story, with reporters looking to inject some unwarranted drama into the proceedings? No, I was told. "It really was that hard for them to get to 60 just to proceed," the source said. "Very telling."

However, what it is “telling” about is the nature of the Senate and the way that that rules have evolved over the last several decades.  It is difficult to do business in the Senate, period.  And the process of having have a debate and vote about whether or not to have a debate and a vote is nothing new to Senate processes.   Indeed, in the absence of a unanimous consent agreement, it is the only practical way for major legislation to reach the floor.  It other words:  it is the kind of thing that is not a deviation from the norm but only seems like one because observers typically pay no attention to the process.  I have written some about Senate procedures along these lines here and here, although there the process under discussion was judicial nominations more than general bills.   In basic terms:  bills are supposed to come off the calendar in the order in which they are placed on the calendar.  This is an inconvenient way to do business, especially in terms of major legislation.  As a result, a motion is needed to get the bill off the calendar and onto the floor.  This is usually done for major legislation through a negotiated process between the majority and the minority leadership.  However, the minority clearly did not want this bill on the floor, so a motion to proceed was needed and hence the debate.  Indeed, one of the main reasons that controlling 60 seats in the chamber is a big deal is that it (theoretically, at least) gives the majority direct control of the calendar by providing enough votes for such motions without having to negotiate with the minority.  Of course getting 60 votes even within the majority caucus is never a guarantee.

It is also “telling” about those making the observation (both York and “the source”) that they seem not to understand that, by definition, super-majorities are difficult to construct.  Just because the Democrats have 60 seats does not mean that they have 60 automatic votes.  The very nature of super-majority requirements is such that it empowers the minority and makes constructing the final vote a real challenge.   It is difficult enough to cobble together a legislative majority in our system for major legislation, let alone for  a 2/3rds vote (for any number of reasons, not the least of which being the regional variations in ideological perspectives around the country and the personalistic/candidate-centered nature of our elections).

And yes:  this is major legislation not without any number of controver sies associated with it.  It would be shocking if there weren’t fights along the way, even within the Democratic caucus.

Another Senate 101 bit:  this legislation is actually moving with some amount of alacrity for the Senate, which really undercuts York’s thesis.

(None of this, btw, has anything to do with whether the bill is a good one or not, but is about understanding our legislature).

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2 Responses to “A Little Senate 101”

  1. Quote of the Day: Why Was It So Difficult for Democrats to Start Health Care Debate? | The Moderate Voice Says:

    [...] points to this piece in particular that asks the question. And Taylor — as usual — stands back and gives us his take on the issue, minus any talk show like rhetoric of the left and right. And it’s our political Quote of the [...]

  2. Thurman Hart Says:

    Nicely done. I’m going to print this out and hand it to the students in my “President and the Congress” class. The problem, as I see it, is that the media thrives on drama, and the US Senate is pretty well designed to have very little of that (although there can be plenty of acting).

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