THE BLOG
10/30/2013 10:10 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Washington Paralysis: Blame Gingrich and the Magna Carta for the End of Majority Rule

Washington dysfunction has many faces and many parents. The most consistent efflorescence is the repeated inability of the Senate, or the House, or both, to pass laws. Good laws, bad laws, confirmations, budgets, nothing gets done.

It's maddening and it's undercutting our ability to govern. Do remember, however, that everybody hates a legislature, no matter what it's doing. Read editorials or poll numbers and the same abhorrence is felt toward the Congress, state legislatures, city councils, the Knesset, the Duma, the General Assembly, Parliament, all painted with the same negative brush.

That's a paradox, sort of, because it is the success of legislatures that define a successful democracy: Everybody has an executive: call it the King, or Queen, or Prime Minister, or President, or Clan Chief. But the great beacons of liberty have legislatures that work, not just efficient executives.

It's true that the Congressional model is broken and it's worth figuring out why. Two reasons: Neither the House nor the Senate live by the basic democratic tenet that "the majority rules," and the House now functions like a parliament not a congress.

In the Senate, nothing can happen without a 60 percent majority. The filibuster used to be described as a protection for the minority and a bar to overhasty action. Both left and right have used it, with its most significant contribution being the delay of civil rights legislation by a coalition of Southern Democrats and Republicans. Whatever selectivity was used in deploying it is now long gone. Nothing happens without 60 votes, so mostly nothing happens. It's fair to say that the Founders did not intend the Senate to be limited to consensus items and a super-majority.

In the House, the problem isn't a rule, it's a culture. The decision by leadership to advance only those items which are approved by the Republican Conference isn't inherently wacky. But it's indiscriminate use means that 40 Tea Party Republicans can stop things like immigration reform and debt ceiling legislation that have the support of probably two-thirds of the House membership. Again, by walking away from a basic democratic ideal, majority rules, the system grinds to a halt.

The House now functions like a European Parliament, rather than an American Congress. Until recently, (recently being the accession of Newt Gingrich as Speaker in 1994), the Speaker of the House paid reasonable attention to the ideology of the majority party that elected him, but found ways to craft a bi-partisan operating majority for things that just had to get done. That's not the way it works in Europe where the leader of the majority party is also the executive, and everything that becomes law has the support of a majority made up of the leader's party. Lose one vote, the government falls.

Gingrich understood that the combination of modern communications, strict party discipline, and a reform-like agenda made possible the transformation of the House. No more bi-partisan majorities: The ruling party ruled. And the Democrats, when they took the House majority, did the same.

The European model has it roots in the profound conflict between the King and everyone else. The Magna Carta created the first legislative counter to the absolute power of the King. The nobles, or the Tories, Whigs, Labor or anyone had to hang together, or they would hang separately.

Whatever the history in Europe, the American system has proven incompatible with that kind of political arrangement. Whatever initial benefit came from adopting the parliamentary model, it now causes gridlock and dysfunction. We need to re-assert the primacy of "majority rules" over the filibuster, and over the unfettered power of the Speaker to refuse to allow a majority of Members to vote and govern.

I spent over 25 years as a Member of a powerful majority in the New York Assembly and it was interesting, important and instructive. We too adopted a parliamentary model, by the way, and produced a majority of votes from our own party. The minority's role was as critic, not power-sharer. Except on issues of conscience like abortion rights or the death penalty. We knew the limits of the system, and made sure we accommodated the need for bi-partisan majorities.

Now, in Washington things like immigration reform and bringing the nation's fiscal policy under control should be viewed as issues of conscience, and brought to the floor of the House for whatever may be the will of a majority of all Members.

It seems modest to a fault to ask that the great beacon of democracy act like it remembers the virtue of "majority rules." And given the personal and political bitterness in Washington, it's unlikely we'll see a sudden return to sensible governance practices. But we need to insist that our long-term survival as a democracy requires a re-examination of how we do business in the Congress, not just the policies and laws we should adopt.

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