As it became clear during the first two years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, a Democratic majority in Congress does not mean we start passing good laws – and right now, we’re seeing history repeat itself. You always have enough corporate Blue Dog Democrats and conservative Senators who actively collude with Republicans to block any real reform, leaving the promise of change betrayed and the liberal base dispirited.
Inevitably, the voters blame Democrats en masse for failing to accomplish anything – and Republicans take control. So what’s the “magic number” of Democrats needed that would finally allow progressives to get things done? I hoped we were getting close, but blogger and numbers whiz Chris Bowers has found the answer. And the only conclusion I find is that Senate Democrats have sabotaged themselves by sanctifying 60-votes to a point of absurdity, and failing to reform the filibuster.
According to Bowers, the filibuster means that progressive legislation requires 72 Senate Democrats – but you only need 54 Republicans to ram through the most awful right-wing agenda. Why? Because “Democrats vote with Republicans significantly more often than Republicans vote with Democrats, making it much easier for Republicans to pass the kind of legislation they want.” Bowers calculated that figure from the Progressive Punch voting scores – where the average Democrat votes with progressives 82.4% of the time, whereas Republicans do so 3.5% of the time.
If we apply the 60-vote requirement to pass anything (which the U.S. Senate only follows when it feels like it), you come to the figure that Republicans only need a 54-46 majority to run the show – but Democrats need an impossible 72-28 margin. And that figure probably sounds right. The U.S. Senate finally passed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in March 2005 – after an election in which the Republicans expanded their majority to 55.
But what I found most interesting about Bowers’ post was how those numbers play out if we eliminated the filibuster. What would happen to progressive legislation if we simply needed 51 Senators to pass anything? Bad stuff would only require 42 Republican Senators to pass, but a minimum of 59 Democrats would be needed to pass progressive legislation. “Even without the filibuster,” he wrote, “passing progressive legislation such as card check and the public option would have been fraught with nail-biters in 2009.”
For most of 2009, Democrats had a 60-vote majority in the Senate – and now, due to Scott Brown’s win in Massachusetts, they have 59. In other words, it is still possible to pass good reform – and arguably (due to prospects of having a slimmer majority next year), it’s really now or never. But what will go down as criminally insane is how Democrats let an whole year go by – when they could have done something progressive. For that, I blame the White House and Senate Leader Harry Reid for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.