Voters want action, but Senate stalls

The Keystone XL pipeline was defeated in the U.S. Senate, because only 59 of the 100 senators voted for the project.

That same day, a bill to reduce N.S.A. surveillance of Americans also failed to pass, because a vote to end debate on the bill only received 58 votes.

Wait a minute. Where in the Constitution does it say that it takes more than a majority to pass a bill in either house of Congress? Nowhere.

These two votes – based on the Senate filibuster rule that requires 60 votes to end debate – teach several lessons about how the U.S. government functions. Or doesn’t function.

On the pipeline vote, the issue was less about whether it was a good idea and more about giving Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat facing a tough uphill fight in a runoff election, a victory to take home to the voters.

The senators knew that, in January, when there will be a lot more GOP senators, it will be easy to get the 60 votes and adopt the Keystone XL bill. So the vote was pure political theater.

All 45 Republicans voted for the pipeline. So did 14 Democrats, including Landrieu and 4 Democrats whose seats will be taken by Republicans next month. Most of the remaining 10 Democrats are moderates, coming from states that lean Republican.

As usual, the Democrats showed far less party discipline that the Republicans. Sen. Susan Collins may be a GOP Maine moderate, but she voted the straight party line.

And Sen. Angus King may be a Maine independent, who even considered joining the GOP Senate caucus, but he voted like a loyal Democrat. He said the Senate should not vote on a mere interstate construction project, though it regularly votes on naming federal buildings.

On the N.S.A. spying bill, all Democrats voted to end debate. So did three tea party Republicans, who dislike the government invasion of privacy. All the remaining GOP senators voted, in effect, against the bill. But there were not enough votes to end debate.

Both Collins and King voted the party line, opposed to one another.

The obvious conclusion is that the filibuster is not consistent with the majority rule the Senate is supposed to use. Now that it is used virtually all the time on important bills, it’s a recipe for getting nothing done.

The filibuster means that either party, having 41 seats, can block any legislation. The Republicans have been in that position and the Democrats will be there in January. The minority can prevent any new legislation.

The rule requiring the 60 votes can be changed by majority vote, but such a change is unlikely. Both parties want to retain the power for use when in the minority.

Why do senators vote the party line? Their loyalty is rewarded by good committee assignments, distributed by party leaders who impose discipline. As a result, they are loath to oppose the reelection of their leaders, because if they end up on the wrong side of that vote, they lose influence and power.

There is another lesson in the Keystone XL vote. It shows that, without the filibuster, a later Senate could reverse a decision made by an earlier Senate. Knowing that was possible could place limits on extremes in the first vote. But that’s unlikely to happen as senators cling to the system they know.

In short, there is little chance the filibuster will disappear. The Democrats did eliminate it for most federal judicial appointments, many of which were blocked by a GOP effort to keep President Obama from putting judges on the bench.

But it will remain for legislation. And that can easily mean the federal government will continue to do nothing.

This has been the least productive Congress in history in terms of bills passed. At the same time, a post-Second World War record for low voter turnout was set when it fell to 36 percent in the recent congressional elections.

Surveys show voters hold Congress in low esteem and want it to act. Their failure to show up at the polls for congressional elections may have been more a statement about its ineffectiveness than a verdict on Obama’s policies, as his opponents claim. This year’s low turnout is evidence of the alienation between the electors and the elected.

The insistence of the Senate to keep the filibuster only promises more inaction. Senators become so preoccupied by Washington games and their own political survival that the gap grows larger between the federal government and what the American people want.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.