"Polish Rules" and Health Care

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Carl Pope Former executive director and chairman, Sierra Club

It's stunning how easily both members of Congress and the media -- and all of us -- have slipped into believing that the problem with the health-care debate is that America is deeply divided. When the bill passed the Senate, the New York Times editorialized: "Conventional wisdom holds that the final product will have to be close to the Senate version lest that fragile 60-vote coalition be ruptured." The Times clearly preferred many features of the House bill, but felt it could only tepidly urge that the final bill "would include some provisions from the House bill."

But at the beginning of the debate, and even at the end, the general public wasn't that divided on the important provisions they wanted in a health-care bill -- including the infamous public option. There were a solid 55 votes in the Senate for a bill substantially stronger and less patchwork than the one that passed. Those 55 senators, additionally, represent the overwhelming majority of the American people -- 16 of the 20 senators who represent the ten most populous states would have voted for a bill at least as strong as the one that passed the House.

Passing a reform of our health-care system was, and should be, difficult. But the final result of the Senate's work is such a patchwork for one and only one reason -- America's political leadership has accepted "Polish rules" (the ability of a small minority to say "no" to anything) as a given in the U.S. Senate. This routine use of the filibuster goes back only to 1993, with the election of Bill Clinton. The Republicans showed in 2005 that the majority party (even with a much smaller majority) could restore majority rule if it was determined to do so. The Democrats could do the same today, but they don't want to because the power of each individual senator is enhanced by Polish rules.

Back in August, the Times was urging the Democrats to use reconciliation, the budget-related procedure by which parts of the health-care reform could be passed by a majority under current Senate rules.

But even then the Times never made it clear that the future effectiveness of our entire constitutional system depends on ending "Polish rules" in the U.S. Senate. And Senate Majority Leader Reid, like other Democrats, has repeatedly stated his commitment to retain the present system. This will change only when the American people demand that senators start doing what we've elected them to do: vote. That means adopting rules that respect the basic principle of democratic governance -- minorities are entitled to be heard, and majorities are then entitled to decide.

If Republican senators knew that legislation -- whether on health care or on energy and climate -- were going to pass, then their present strategy of stonewalling and operating like a party-line minority would quickly be abandoned. The hyper-partisanship of the present Senate is a result, as well as a cause, of the gridlock created by the 60-vote rule. It gives the minority party more power as an obstructionist than as a coalition partner.

If we want to fix American politics, we need to fix Polish rules. Health care is only the latest proof point.