In the US Senate, it requires 60 votes out of 100 to do anything—to proceed to debate, to pass a bill, to amend a bill, to confirm a political appointee or a judge—anything. This is not what the Founding Fathers envisioned and it’s not in the Constitution; it’s a result of unprincipled abuse of informal practices by an increasingly nihilistic Republican Party.
The dysfunctional state of the Senate has damaging consequences that extend into virtually every corner of American politics. There’s just one in particular I want to focus on today: It gives progressives a complex!
Take environmentalists. Just last week, the climate bill, into which they’d poured countless hours of effort, lobbying, campaigning, arguing, and advocating, died an unceremonious death. Not surprisingly, this set off a round of self-recrimination and mutual recrimination. “Why did we fail?” they cried in anguish. Was it the messaging? Too much climate, not enough jobs? The reverse? Was the strategy too focused on Congress and not enough on the grassroots? Too many compromises? Too few? Could Obama have saved it? And on and on.
But step back for a moment and think about it. Climate and clean energy are incredibly difficult issues for any number of reasons. Yet environmentalists pulled together a huge coalition of businesses, religious groups, military groups, unions, and social justice groups. They got a majority of U.S. citizens on their side, as polls repeatedly showed. And—here’s the kicker—on the back of all that work, they got a majority of legislators in both houses of Congress on their side.
In a sane world—and in other developed democracies—that’s what success looks like. Environmentalists did what they were supposed to do, and they did it well! They should be proud of themselves. It’s not their fault Republicans are abusing idiosyncratic features of Senate governance to make reform prohibitively difficult.
The fact is, on a consequential, far-reaching, forward-looking, regionally charged set of issues like climate and energy, getting 60 percent of the country on your side is difficult enough. But getting 60 votes in the already-unrepresentative Senate is just an absurdly high bar. Theoretically, 40 senators representing under 10 percent of the population can block the will of the other 90 percent!
At least for the time being, it seems unlikely any combination of messaging, mobilizing, and lobbying can put a substantive climate bill over the top in the Senate. But that’s just because the Senate is broken.