If you thought the hard-fought battle to reform our nation’s woefully inadequate health care system was already won, think again. Republican Scott Brown has vowed to cast the decisive, 41st vote against the Democratic health care bill in the Senate, should he upset Democrat Martha Coakley in a special election in Massachusetts next Tuesday. That this coup de grâce could come from a seat once held by the late Ted Kennedy, health care reform’s greatest champion over the last several decades, only adds insult to injury.
There is more to this story, however, than just the special election. As columnist Gail Collins pointed out in today’s NY Times, the way the Senate currently does business is fundamentally flawed.
As we all learned in civics class, every state has two senators, regardless of population size. Hence, there are 100 senators in all with 40 of them representing America’s 20 least-populated states. According to Collins, those states account for only 10.2 percent of our total population.
However, if the senators from those states stick together, they only need one more vote to invoke a tactic known as the filibuster. This strategy exploits a Senate procedural rule requiring 60 votes to end debate and bring legislation to a final vote. As long as 41 senators refuse, they can effectively kill any bill they don’t like by extending debate indefinitely.
For fellow film enthusiasts, this parliamentary maneuver probably brings to mind the principled stand taken by Jimmy Stewart’s character in the 1939 classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. These days, however, the mere threat of a filibuster is enough to get the job done. So, you won’t see Minority Leader Mitch McConnell collapsing from exhaustion on the Senate floor after delivering a moving oration about the evils of “socialized medicine” anytime soon (as amusing as that spectacle would certainly be).
There’s something inherently wrong with a system that allows senators representing little more than 10 percent of our population to subvert the will of an overwhelming majority of Americans. I implore the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration to put an end to this chicanery by amending Rule 22 regarding the Precedence of Motions. Revising this requirement is necessary to ensure that the American people’s voice is heard in Washington and would also help cure the legislative paralysis currently crippling Congress.