On Politics On PoliticsOn Politics
Analysis and perspective about what's happening in the political realm.

Blocking the Vote in Congress

Condor 36/Shutterstock.com

A friend of mine who has been a lobbyist for years—and wants to remain anonymous so he can continue doing it a while longer—recently made the argument to me that the current Congress is not, in fact, the least productive in U.S. history. But you do have to go quite a way back: He says the Ninth Congress, from 1805 to 1807, during Thomas Jefferson's second term in office, did even less, because the government had no money left after the Louisiana Purchase. (As a Louisianan, I think it was a worthwhile investment.)

In any case, it would not be hard to fill up a five-day symposium on Washington dysfunction; heck, it wouldn't take much effort to make it a semester-long course. Some problems are unique to the House of Representatives, others to the Senate, and still more to the White House. Then, of course, there are the more-systemic problems, such as the intense partisanship that has become so prevalent in the last 30 years, infecting both chambers, tainting relationships, and making addressing big issues more difficult.

One such problem can be laid squarely at the feet of congressional leaders—specifically, those who call the shots on what reaches the House and Senate floors and what doesn't. In the old days, the general sentiment was that if you didn't want to cast tough, controversial votes, you shouldn't have run for Congress. Making hard calls and having to deal with the consequences was part of the job description. Nowadays, however, that job description has changed to such an extent that one of the top responsibilities for the leader of a majority party in either chamber is to protect one's members from casting tough votes. The fact that a binding vote on the Keystone XL pipeline has not reached the Senate floor is a perfect example. And free-trade advocates should not hold their breath waiting for trade-promotion authority or the Trans-Pacific Partnership to make it to the floor for a vote; both measures are strongly supported by the Obama administration but viewed warily by certain Senate Democrats.

The folly of this is that a big country has big problems, and dealing with them usually involves making decisions that will alienate a segment of voters. To shield House members or senators from difficult votes is to effectively abdicate responsibility, to simply say, "No, thanks. I'll pass on dealing with this."

In the new political order, nothing is more important than either winning or holding a majority. The rationale is that the other party is so wrongheaded, if not evil, that if it were to prevail, then the immediate future—at least—of the Republic would be endangered, so anything that prevents the other party from capturing or holding a majority is justified, even necessary. Not unexpectedly, the result is gridlock.

For Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the preferred tactic is to "fill the amendment tree" to prevent consideration of anything that he doesn't want to reach the floor. The nonpartisan Congressional Institute describes it well: "At any given time, the Senate may only consider a certain number of amendments to a bill or to other amendments. Their order of priority can be depicted on a chart that looks like a number of branches coming from a tree trunk. When each line has an amendment, the 'tree' is full and no other amendment can be offered. The Senate Majority Leader has the right to be recognized first in a debate, so he can repeatedly offer amendments—whether they are substantial or not—to fill the tree. Republicans, naturally, have been fuming about Senator Reid's aggressive use of the tactic, but it also blocks Democratic amendments."

In recent weeks, Reid even filled the tree to prevent a vote on Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan's Sportsmen's and Public Outdoor Recreation Traditions Act, a fairly innocuous package of hunting, fishing, and public-lands measures. The testy relationship between Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—the phrase "barely speaking to each other" is routinely used—only worsens the chamber's inability to act.

The parallel problem on the Republican side is the so-called Hastert Rule in the House, the legacy of former Speaker Dennis Hastert. It isn't actually a rule; rather, it's a practice of not bringing a measure to the floor unless it has the support of a majority of the majority party's members. Thus the House, which was designed to have majority rule, now has plurality rule, subverting that chamber's ability to get things done.

Much of this is rooted, of course, in a public that is more polarized along partisan lines than ever before. The divisions in Congress are mimicking the problems of an increasingly divided America. The sharp division we see today encourages leaders to behave in ways that their predecessors would have despised.

This article appears in the July 26, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Blocking the Vote.

(Image via Condor 36/Shutterstock.com)

Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

  • Federal IT Applications: Assessing Government's Core Drivers

    In order to better understand the current state of external and internal-facing agency workplace applications, Government Business Council (GBC) and Riverbed undertook an in-depth research study of federal employees. Overall, survey findings indicate that federal IT applications still face a gamut of challenges with regard to quality, reliability, and performance management.

  • PIV- I And Multifactor Authentication: The Best Defense for Federal Government Contractors

    This white paper explores NIST SP 800-171 and why compliance is critical to federal government contractors, especially those that work with the Department of Defense, as well as how leveraging PIV-I credentialing with multifactor authentication can be used as a defense against cyberattacks

  • Toward A More Innovative Government

    This research study aims to understand how state and local leaders regard their agency’s innovation efforts and what they are doing to overcome the challenges they face in successfully implementing these efforts.

  • From Volume to Value: UK’s NHS Digital Provides U.S. Healthcare Agencies A Roadmap For Value-Based Payment Models

    The U.S. healthcare industry is rapidly moving away from traditional fee-for-service models and towards value-based purchasing that reimburses physicians for quality of care in place of frequency of care.

  • GBC Flash Poll: Is Your Agency Safe?

    Federal leaders weigh in on the state of information security


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.