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Want real reform? Let's start with Congress.

By Steven Pearlstein
Wednesday, November 11, 2009

By now most people have heard the story of the frog that's put in a pot of cold water on a hot stove and doesn't notice as it is gradually boiled to death. The story may not be true: Most frogs apparently will jump out of the pot at some point. But it remains a useful metaphor for how dysfunctional things can become -- in a market, or a marriage, or a political system -- and how far people can go in rationalizing crazy behavior and unsatisfactory outcomes.

I've been thinking about that as I've watched Congress tackle health-care reform.

Last weekend, after months of committee deliberations, backroom dealmaking and leadership arm-twisting, the House narrowly approved a complex, 2,000-page plan after a mere four hours of political and ideological posturing that allowed for only two amendments, one having to do with abortion.

Almost nobody -- including the House members themselves-- found it odd that this process offered no chance to vote on what kind of "public option" they wanted, or whether they wanted to add some form of malpractice reform, or whether there should be some limit on the value of tax-free health benefits or any of the other two dozen key issues in the health reform debate. In the world's oldest continuous democracy, these apparently are questions considered too important to be decided individually by a majority of the elected representatives.

The health bill now heads to a much less certain fate in the Senate, where instead of a dictatorship of the majority there is a dictatorship of the minority.

Because of the quaint traditions of the upper chamber, there are today scores of top positions in government that routinely remain unfilled for months because one senator or another has decided to put a "hold" on a nomination. And on any controversial issue, and even some that are not, 60 votes are now required to overcome the threat of endless "debate" and actually pass a piece of legislation, along with 60 votes on as many amendments as senators can dream up.

It's gotten to the point now where all it takes to kill something in the Senate is the mere threat of a filibuster, without anyone actually having to mount one. And if you somehow managed to get, say, health reform legislation to the floor, it would take 60 votes to pass a bill that included the public option and 60 votes to pass one without it.

Catch-22!

Despite what you hear from legislative leaders, there is nothing preordained about this wholesale disregard for majority rule. In fact, it violates the letter and spirit of the U.S. Constitution, which expressly delineates a limited number of instances in which anything other than a majority vote is required. And it makes a mockery of Senate rules and precedent, which for nearly two centuries were grounded in a tradition of comity and mutual respect between majority and minority.

All of this, course, has developed so gradually that Washington insiders are inured to the undemocratic nature of the House and the Senate. Most days they are so caught up in the gamesmanship it has spawned that they barely notice how utterly ridiculous and ineffective the legislative process has become.

Although most members of the House and Senate will acknowledge that the process is badly broken, they blame the other party and have convinced themselves that there is no way to change it until the other party is so thoroughly defeated that it agrees to change.

In other words, they are frogs in a pot.

So at the risk of sounding naive, I'd like to offer a novel idea for changing the legislative dynamic, restoring majority rule to the legislative process and keeping health reform alive: Debate it on the Senate floor.

That's right, forget about spending another six weeks searching for those elusive 60 votes to break a filibuster, going back and forth with weak-kneed centrists like Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieu who can't seem to decide what they really want, or self-righteous egotists like Joe Lieberman, who thinks he can call all the shots. If they have suggestions for improving the bill, let them do it the old-fashioned way: propose an amendment on the floor and see if they can get 49 other senators to agree.

To get things started, it will be necessary to put Vice President Biden in his rightful constitutional place as presiding officer, where he should make clear he'll do whatever is necessary to restore majority rule to the Senate, even as he jealously protects the rights of the minority to blabber on as long as it wants and offer whatever amendments it thinks necessary. And if that means overturning some outmoded precedent laid down by some dead predecessor, so be it.

As a final step, Majority Leader Harry Reid will need to break out the cots and announce that he'll keep the Senate in session day and night until a bill is passed or defeated or Senators agree to give up and go home.

If nothing else, it will be a marvelous civics lesson for Americans who have probably forgotten, if they ever knew, what a real floor fight looks like. They might even be so captivated that they decide to join the battle and let their elected representatives know how they feel. And my hunch is that when it's all over, we'll wind up with a health-care reform bill that is not only better than one negotiated in the backrooms, but is a much better reflection of where the country is on the issue.

Steven Pearlstein will host a Web discussion today at 11 a.m. at washingtonpost.com.

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