Sunday, July 8, 2007

In debate over the "grand bargain," attention focused on the role of the cloture vote--which sets limits on debate for a bill. The Washington Post has an interesting survey of some of the history of the cloture motion and the current use of cloture to get bills passed in the Senate. Some history:

Cloture emerged in 1917 as a way to limit filibusters, the tactic by which senators use their rights of unlimited debate to delay or block legislation.

President Woodrow Wilson, frustrated by a 23-day filibuster that stalled his proposal to arm merchant ships in World War I, called a special session to consider a cloture proposal.

The Senate, he said, is "the only legislative body in the world which cannot act when its majority is ready for action. A little group of willful men, representing no opinion but their own, have rendered the great government of the United States helpless and contemptible."

The resulting rule held that if two-thirds of the Senate's 100 members agreed, debate on a measure could end and a vote on passing or rejecting the proposal could take place after each senator had an opportunity to speak for another hour.

The high bar for cloture meant it was seldom used and almost never successful. Senate historians say cloture was invoked in only five cases over the next 46 years.

Over the past 30 years, however, the bar for cloture has been lowered:
Cloture rules have been revised a number of times, most significantly in 1975. That is when the threshold for ending debate was lowered from two-thirds of the Senate, or 67 senators, to three-fifths, or 60. In 1986, the cap for debate after cloture was shortened, from 100 hours to 30 hours.
And cloture's being invoked a lot more. The Senate of the 104th Congress (1995-97) set a record of 82 cloture votes. Many estimate that the present Senate is on track to surpass this record.

This story, in its mention of the Senate as being "ungovernable," may show a slightly Beltway emphasis on the importance of passing legislation--no matter what (e.a.):

"It's the only way to manage the floor," said Reid's spokesman, Jim Manley. "The alternative is to do nothing, and that's absolutely unacceptable."

Besides, [former Senate Majority Leader] Mitchell [(D-ME)] said, campaigning on a theme as obscure as a slew of failed cloture votes would be a tough feat.

"The public's view is, 'You're in charge _ you produce,' " he said. "If you don't produce, it's your fault _ even if it's the other guys who prevented you."

But didn't the Founders favor a bicameral legislature partially because that structure could obstruct bills and make them slightly more difficult to pass? Obviously, they wanted government to have some capability for vigorous action--indeed, they in part called the Constitutional convention because they did not think the Articles of Confederation allowed for a very effective government--but would they necessarily be that displeased on principle if the Senate, which was intended to be insulated from popular winds anyhow, prevented some bills from being passed? After all, by some theories, making bills more difficult to pass also makes bad bills more difficult to pass and, perhaps, makes it slightly more likely that, in coping with this difficulty, proponents of a given bill will have to make it as "strong" as possible in order to get it to pass--and making bills difficult to pass can also make it structurally harder for government to legislate to itself overwhelming power. Though this Post story calls the Senate "ungovernable," couldn't the seeming intractability of the Senate be in fact a virtue of the government from the Founders' perspective? (As George Washington is reputed to have said to Thomas Jefferson: as we put tea in a saucer to cool it, we put the bills of the House in the Senate to "cool" public passions.) Of course, the Founders could be wrong...