This is not Lyndon Johnson’s Senate

at 01:30 PM ET, 05/08/2012


(David Brookman/LBJ Presidential Library)
When I think about the difference between Lyndon Johnson’s Senate and Barack Obama’s, I think of a memo — pictured above — that Mike Manatos, who served as Senate liaison for Johnson, sent to Larry O’Brien, who directed Johnson’s campaign. It was written on Dec. 8, 1964, just days after the election. Manatos is giving O’Brian an overview of how the Senate elections improved the chances of passing Medicare. Manatos wrote:

Of the 49 votes cast on behalf of Medicare (Gore amendment) on September 2, 1964, we lost two supporters in the last election -- Senators Keating and Salinger. However, we picked up five new supporters -- Senators Bass, Harris, Kennedy (Robt.), Montoya, and Tydings.

We also had three supporters who missed the vote this year -- Senators Bayh, Hartke, and Kennedy (Ted).

Thus if all our supporters are present and voting we would win by a vote of 55 to 45.

Of course, if we could persuade Senator Russell (who is on the brink) to support Medicare this year our margin should be even greater.

That letter would never be written today. Confidently asserting that any major piece of legislation could pass with 60 votes would be enough to get a political aide fired. The modern Senate requires 60 votes to pass pretty much anything. The exception are bills that can be passed through budget reconciliation, but that process comes with its own limitations and problems. If you don’t know that today, you are not qualified to work in politics.

In Johnson’s time, however, the Senate was not governed by the filibuster. This chart counts “cloture” votes, which are the votes you take to break a filibuster, and thus give us a way to count whether the majority is having to face down a lot of filibusters. Johnson was president during the 88th, 89th, and 90th sessions of Congress. And as you can see, there weren’t many filibusters:


(Data: Congress.gov; Chart: Ezra Klein)
Nor were there very organized parties. Or 24-hour news media. Or any of a number of other major factors that combine to create the toxic swirl of polarization and paralysis that we refer to by the convenient shorthand of “Congress.” In fact, the filibuster back then was a stronger tool than it is today, requiring two-thirds of the Senate to vote to break it rather than three-fifths — and yet it was absent from almost everything but battles over civil rights.

Which is all to say that Alec MacGillis is right: The idea that an LBJ could simply come along and bring Congress to heel is a wishful anachronism. The Senate doesn’t need a great man. It needs better rules.

 
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