Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Democrats' Control of Congress Is Not Quite Airtight

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Democrats' Control of Congress Is Not Quite Airtight

Article excerpt

EVEN Republicans are finding one good thing in the election results: For the first time since the Carter administration, the White House and both houses of Congress will be controlled by the same party, thus apparently ending the possibility of governmental gridlock.

But not quite. The Democrats have a big enough majority to organize the Senate, but not enough to control it if the minority wants to be nasty. The sand to throw in the Senate's legislative gears comes from an increasing willingness in recent years to abuse its traditional freedom of unlimited debate.

One of the reasons for having the Senate in the first place was to protect the public interest against the passions of the moment which the Founding Fathers feared might dominate the popularly elected House from time to time. A good example of the value of unfettered debate was a bill President Truman sent to Congress in 1946 to deal with a railroad strike by drafting strikers into the Army. The House passed it in less than two hours. The Senate debated it a week and buried it.

For a long time, there was no provision in the Senate rules for ending debate. But it was understood that using debate to prevent hasty action is different from using it to prevent any action. The upper chamber first provided a way to end debate in 1917 as a reaction to a filibuster that killed President Woodrow Wilson's bill arming merchant ships. That action led to the first cloture rule, though not a very stringent one. Debate could be ended, but only by a two-thirds vote. Later the rule was changed to allow cloture by a vote of three-fifths of all senators; but a proposal to change the rule itself still requires two-thirds. The irony is that an arrangement whose original purpose was to protect minorities came to be used to block legislation to enforce minority rights. That use was largely overcome through public pressure with the passage of the civil rights legislation of the 1960s.

But then there was more irony. …

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