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The Logic of Obstruction

The GOP has abandoned majority rule

By Dylan R. Matthews

“Scott Brown Wins Mass. Race, Giving GOP 41-59 Majority in the Senate,” read the headline on Roy Edroso’s blog at The Village Voice. Edroso was being wry, of course, but the Philly Metro wasn’t when it printed an article titled, “How will Dems recover after losing majority?” The sad thing is, the headline was not substantively in error. With the filibuster in effect, 60 votes or more is a majority. Forty votes or fewer is a minority. Anything in between is a gridlocked no man’s land where nothing of consequence can be passed. This situation’s proximate cause is the current Senate Republican Conference’s pernicious decision to use the filibuster at an unprecedented frequency.

As UCLA political scientist Barbara Sinclair has documented, only eight percent of bills deemed “legislation to watch” by Congressional Quarterly faced filibusters or filibuster threats in the 1960s. For example, when Lyndon Johnson was counting votes for Medicare in 1965, he assumed that a majority vote would pass and did not even consider having to break a filibuster. By contrast, in the 2000s, 70 percent of “legislation to watch” faced a 60-vote requirement.

This problem has increased markedly since the Republicans became the minority in the Senate in 2007. In the 109th Congress, from 2005 to 2007, motions to vote on cloture—the procedural manifestation of a filibuster—numbered 68. In the 110th Congress, from 2007 to 2009, that number more than doubled to 139. The current Congress is on pace to match that figure, with 67 cloture motions filed this year alone. The current Republican minority has chosen to filibuster anything and everything, subverting majority rule.

But this tactical decision by the Republicans has a deeper strategic purpose. Politically, there is no reason for the Republican minority to help the Democratic majority rack up policy accomplishments. If the Democrats pass major legislation, they can campaign on it in the midterm elections, preserving or even expanding their majority. This is especially true if Republicans sign on, which gives the legislation an attractive veneer of bipartisanship.

If, however, the Republicans are able to obstruct every Democratic initiative, the majority looks like do-nothings and are likelier to be thrown out of office. This worked in 1994, when Republican intransigence killed universal health care and in the process made the Democratic leadership appear incapable of accomplishing anything. It resulted in a GOP landslide that fall. The supermajority requirement in the Senate, then, is not just a method to prevent policies the Republicans dislike but also a quite effective campaign strategy.

I do not begrudge the Republican minority its love of the filibuster. It is making due the best it can, given the structural constraints of the current system. But if 60 percent is such a magic threshold, I implore the GOP to apply it consistently. Scott Brown won with 52 percent of the vote; Martha Coakley received 47 percent. If GOP Senate logic applies, that means Coakley won with six percentage points to spare.

Dylan R. Matthews '12, a Crimson editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House.

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