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How majority rule works in the U.S. Senate

COMMENTARY | July 31, 2009

The press and political leaders often say that a three-fifths majority is needed to pass a bill. That's incorrect, but more and more it is working out that way. Longtime journalist Lawrence Meyer explains and spells out how dissenting senators, conceivably representing no more than 12 percent of the population, can stymie legislation.

By Lawrence Meyer
How many votes does it take to pass a bill in the Senate?
a.    51
b.    75
c.     60
d.    none of the above
If you guessed 60, it would be wrong, but understandable because that’s what the media mostly report whenever the subject comes up.
Even senators speaking on the record obscure the truth. The Washington Post recently quoted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid:
I have a responsibility to get a bill on the Senate floor that will get 60 votes,’ Reid said. ‘That's my number one responsibility, and there are times when I have to set aside my personal preferences for the good of the Senate and I think the country.’”
In fact, Reid does not need 60 votes to pass a bill. He needs 60 votes in order to allow the Senate to vote on a bill, something The Post didn’t bother to explain in this instance.
That failure to explain is too often the case. It’s hard enough to understand the legislative process without misrepresenting it. What Reid meant was that 60 votes were needed to break the ever-present threat of a filibuster, not to actually pass the bill. Last month, the Senate took up an amendment to the Defense appropriation bill. The amendment would have made a concealed weapon carry permit from one state valid in all 50 states regardless of whether or not concealed weapons were valid in the other states.
The amendment received 58 votes in favor, but it still failed to pass. USA Today, the largest circulating daily newspaper in America, carried an AP story that reported: "The vote was 58-39 in favor of the provision establishing concealed carry permit reciprocity in the 48 states that have concealed weapons laws. That fell two votes short of the 60 needed to approve the measure, offered as an amendment to a Defense spending bill."
New York Times readers were told, "A group comprising mostly Republicans, along with some influential Democrats, had tried to attach the gun amendment to the annual military authorization bill, a must-pass piece of legislation. But the provision got only 58 votes, two short of the 60 needed under Senate rules."
That got closer to describing the situation, but still didn’t quite do it, though the Times story did present a rare example of using the word “comprise” properly.
The Washington Post that time got it right: "The measure, introduced by Senator John Thune (R-South Dakota), gained the support of all but two Republicans and 20 Democrats, but the vote of 58 to 39 in favor fell two short of the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster."
A distinction without a difference, some might say. Journalists, for reasons of time and space, often use shorthand. As a practical matter, some might argue, if a filibuster is threatened and it takes 60 votes to end debate in the Senate, then it does take 60 votes to pass a bill.
Nothing in the Constitution says that a three-fifths majority is necessary to pass ordinary legislation. The repeated use of terms like “short of the 60 votes needed” or “It takes 60 votes” or “60 votes are needed” to pass a bill in the Senate certainly gives that impression. That might be the case, but it’s rarely explained to the public in those terms.
Americans revere the Constitution. They might revere the Senate less—assuming they revere it all—if they understood the process better. If the public understood that 41 senators can prevent the Senate from even voting on a measure, how tolerant would the public be?
And, by the way, those 41 senators might represent as little as 12 percent of the U.S. population.
In the past 40 years—and even more so in the past 10 years—the filibuster, or just the threat of one, has been used increasingly to stifle legislation. Norman Ornstein, the highly respected Congressional scholar, wrote last year that,
“In the 1970s, the average number of cloture motions filed in a given month was less than two; it moved to around three a month in the 1990s. This Congress [the 110th], we are on track for two or more a week. The number of cloture motions filed in 1993, the first year of the Clinton presidency, was 20. It was 21 in 1995, the first year of the newly Republican Senate. As of the end of the first session of the 110th Congress, there were 60 cloture motions, nearing an all-time record.”
Yes, it’s true that the Senate was designed by the Founding Fathers to put a check on the more rambunctious House of Representatives; and yes, it’s also true that the Senate makes its own rules, and it’s certainly true that at one time or other some proposal that many of us thought was very bad was denied passage by using a filibuster or the threat of one. But wouldn’t it be better if we got a full description of the process when a minority can block the majority?
Would it make a difference if it were reported that way? We can’t know the answer unless we try.

Posted by Mike
02/22/2010, 03:20 PM

What is the CORRECT answer? Jeez.

Posted by dominic
03/21/2012, 08:40 PM

just nonsense! you are rambling sir..didn't even answer your own question..waste..

And then, there's reconciliation...
The seldom-used tactic that gets around the 60-vote hurdle.

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