Congress tries democracy for a change!

Here’s the biggest winner in the fiscal cliff deal: majority rule.

Congressional rules reform is a subject guaranteed to make the eyes glaze over. But if you want to know Congress why gets nothing done, it is not primarily because the country is hopelessly divided or the sensible center has disappeared from the American electorate, but because neither the House nor the Senate allows a majority of its members to work their will.

Has a new day dawned, when Congress might abide by majority rule? (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

In the Senate, it’s the ridiculous rules requiring unanimous consent to take up a bill or a nomination, and the filibuster that lets a minority of the Senate “talk” a bill or a nomination to death without actually having to show up on the floor and talk. So even if there are 51 or 55 or even 59 senators willing to do something that is politically difficult — such as curbing the growth in entitlement spending, for instance — they  can’t unless they get the 60-vote supermajority now required under Senate practice.

The House, particularly under Republican control, has also effectively repealed majority rule. Since the mid-1990s, Republican leaders have vowed not to bring legislation to the floor that isn’t supported by a “majority of the majority” — a majority of the members of the Republican caucus.  And once the caucus decides what to do, then it is expected that all Republicans will fall in line and support the party position. To accomplish this, bills have to be crafted to satisfy virtually every member of the Republican caucus, which pulls them even further to the right and makes them odious to Democrats, who similarly fall in line and vote as a bloc against them.

What this means in practice is that Republicans have to pass bills only with Republican votes.  And since the party has a thin majority in the House, the defection of only 20 or so of its most conservative members effectively dooms any legislation, as it did with Speaker John A. Boehner’s ill-fated Plan B.

What happened yesterday was that things worked the way the framers of the Constitution imagined they would work. The Senate took up a bill without unanimous consent, debated and acted on it without the losers resorting to a filabuter. And the House reverted to majority rule. By honoring his promise to the president and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to bring up any Senate-passed bill, Boehner (R-Ohio) agreed to set aside the “majority of the majority” standard and allowed a centrist, bipartisan coalition to work its will — in this case over the objection of a majority of the Republican caucus.

This is the template for doing difficult things in Congress. In fact it, is the only template.

That’s why Senate rules reformers should stand firm tomorrow when the new Senate convenes and has the opportunity to adopt new rules that will return the Senate to majority rule without restricting the right of the minority to speak or offer amendments.

And it is why Democrats should quietly make clear they will provide whatever votes are necessary to secure the election of Boehner as speaker of the House on Thursday, in the event he is faced with a challenge from disgruntled tea party members of his caucus. That’s not because Boehner is such a great speaker — based on recent events, I think we can agree he’s quite flawed. But if the alternative is a Republican speaker who insists on running the House by “majority of the majority,” then supporting Boehner is the better option.

If President Obama wants to accomplish what he says he wants to accomplish in his second term — all those difficult things such as a grand budget bargain, immigration reform, tax reform, something reasonable on climate change — then tomorrow’s opening of the new Congress is a make-or-break day. What we learned on New Year’s Day is that there is a centrist bipartisan consensus in America. It’s just that the rules of the House and Senate have not allowed it to emerge. 

Steven Pearlstein is a business and economics columnist who writes about local, national and international topics.
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Neil Irwin | January 2, 2013