Biden’s agenda is getting buried in a legislative graveyard

The necessity of a super-majority is holding back important legislation

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Editorials

January 11, 2022 - 8:55 AM

President Joe Biden (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)

Joe Biden wants to go down in history as a transformative president. He began his time in office by passing a popular economic stimulus and Covid-19 relief bill. The Biden White House basked in comparisons with Franklin Roosevelt’s country-changing presidency. With Democrats in control of the executive and legislative branches of government, the sky seemed the limit. However, in recent months Mr. Biden’s agenda — most notably on climate change — has been buried in a legislative graveyard.

This is in part because the U.S. Senate is a rare law-making body: it needs a super-majority for ordinary business. Its rules require 60 senators to give the green light for a bill to go to the floor for passage with a straightforward vote. This is the hurdle required to beat a filibuster, where debate is extended so that no vote on a bill can take place. Frustrated and hamstrung, President Biden has cooled on such mechanisms. He’s right to think about ending this maneuver which is used to block legislation a majority wishes to pass. The 41 Republican senators needed to defeat “cloture” motions — those required to end a debate — could represent less than a quarter of the U.S. population.

As EJ Dionne pointed out in the Washington Post last October, the filibuster “is now a barrier to normal governing … From 1917 through 1970 (53 years), there were only 58 cloture motions. From 1971 to 2006 (35 years) there were 928. From 2007 to now (14 years) there have been 1,419.” As the use of the filibuster has become more frequent, so have the threats for “the nuclear option” to change the rules and impose simple majority votes. When Barack Obama was in the White House, Democrats eliminated the filibuster on presidential nominations other than those for the supreme court. In 2017, with Donald Trump as president, Republicans got rid of those too.

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