Editorial: Clogged Senate

Posted January 12, 2010 at 4:26pm

Everyone knows that once Congress finally gets done debating health care reform, there is a huge agenda of unfinished business ahead — financial services reform, climate change and a jobs bill.

In every one of those cases, as almost everyone also knows, the House has already acted and the Senate has not. What most Americans don’t realize — probably most people on Capitol Hill don’t, either — is that the House last year passed close to 270 bills that have never been addressed by the Senate.

These include changes in the Presidential Records Act and the rules for donations to presidential libraries, which passed by the House last January. Also, legislation tightening accountability and limiting bonuses at banks receiving Troubled Asset Relief Program bailouts, passed in January and March, respectively.

Also, the Transportation Security Administration reauthorization and a measure to improve science and math education, both passed by the House in June; reform of the absentee ballot system, passed in July; and student loan reform, passed in September.

We could go on — the Airline Safety and Pilot Training Improvement Act of 2009, passed in October; and the Enhanced S.E.C. Enforcement Authority Act and the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, passed last month.

We are not saying all these measures deserve enactment, but they do deserve the Senate’s attention. Some of them were referred to Senate committees and haven’t been heard of since. Others have been cleared for floor action but never voted on.

The bottom line is the Senate has become not just the “saucer— designed by the founders to cool the ardor of the House, but a nearly impenetrable clog in Congress’ legislative piping.

Whose fault is this? Partly, it may be management decisions by Democratic leaders and committee chairmen. But mostly it’s the result of the bitter partisanship that encourages the minority party — whichever that happens to be — to resort to ever more aggressive attempts to obstruct the Senate business and stifle the majority.

It has become worse year by year. There was a time when a cloture vote to break a filibuster was a rare occurrence. In the late 1990s, when Democrats were in the minority, they threatened filibusters that had to be overcome by cloture votes an average of 25 times a year. In the 110th Congress, with Republicans in the minority, there were 112 cloture votes. Last year, there were 40.

Once, most bills passed by majority vote. Now, everything significant requires a supermajority of 60.

It used to be that the minority party disputed the label “obstructionist.— Now, Republicans boast about it. In this year’s health care debate, one GOP Senator sent around a memo outlining methods of dragging out debate, including one suggestion for “filibuster by amendment.—

New attention is being given to trying to change Senate rules, to lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of filibusters and to official protests by the House.

We doubt that any of these will succeed in opening the logjam. It’s going to take a public furious that its business isn’t getting done. And the fact is, it isn’t.