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Congress, Heal Thyself

Congress this year is on a tear against bad behavior in the corporate world. Lawmakers have passed credit card reforms to protect Americans from the worst abuses of the big banks; they’re moving now on health reforms to protect Americans from the worst practices of the insurance industry; they’re pushing new finance regulations to protect Americans from the worst habits of Wall Street firms; and they’re eying climate change legislation to protect Americans from the worst conduct of the nation’s big polluters.

But who’s going to protect Americans from the worst practices of Congress?

That’s the question being asked by Steven Pearlstein, the Pulitzer Prize-winning business columnist for The Washington Post, who wonders today whatever happened to the concept of majority rule on Capitol Hill? As an example of how the House has gotten away from its Democratic beginnings, Pearlstein points to the floor debate over the $894 billion health reform bill passed over the weekend, which allowed for votes on just two amendments — precluding even a chance to gauge support for some of the most hot-button health care issues.

Almost nobody — including the House members themselves — found it odd that this process offered no chance to vote on what kind of “public option” they wanted, or whether they wanted to add some form of malpractice reform, or whether there should be some limit on the value of tax-free health benefits or any of the other two dozen key issues in the health reform debate. In the world’s oldest continuous democracy, these apparently are questions considered too important to be decided individually by a majority of the elected representatives.

And then there’s the Senate, where the filibuster has evolved to the point that 60 votes are required to pass even the most non-controversial proposals — a trend that’s slowed the legislative process to a frustrating crawl. That, Pearlstein argues, was hardly the intended design.

Despite what you hear from legislative leaders, there is nothing preordained about this wholesale disregard for majority rule. In fact, it violates the letter and spirit of the U.S. Constitution, which expressly delineates a limited number of instances in which anything other than a majority vote is required. And it makes a mockery of Senate rules and precedent, which for nearly two centuries were grounded in a tradition of comity and mutual respect between majority and minority.

Pearlstein has a novel suggestion: restore majority rule by bringing everything — even the controversial health reform proposals — to the floor for an up-or-down, majority-wins vote.

[F]orget about spending another six weeks searching for those elusive 60 votes to break a filibuster, going back and forth with weak-kneed centrists like Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieu who can’t seem to decide what they really want, or self-righteous egotists like Joe Lieberman, who thinks he can call all the shots. If they have suggestions for improving the bill, let them do it the old-fashioned way: propose an amendment on the floor and see if they can get 49 other senators to agree.

This is hardly just a criticism of Republican obstructionism. After all, it’s Democratic leaders who decide which provisions get floor consideration and which don’t. And their choices are often as politically motivated as the GOP strategy of forever stalling legislation. (Democrats, for example, could easily have passed an extension of unemployment benefits much more quickly than they did if they had only agreed to votes on several controversial GOP amendments — provisions that would have touched political buttons and been potentially embarrassing to the majority party.)

All Pearlstein has suggested is that even some of those contentious things be given consideration.

Sound crazy? Only to those grown accustomed to the dysfunctional, back-room process that’s evolved.

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