10/31/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Can We Survive Minority Rule?

I was standing in an office in New York as the House began to vote yesterday, and could see the bail-out going down as Republican votes piled up against it. A few minutes earlier, I had learned that if the package passed, it was likely that the vitally needed tax credits for renewable power and energy efficiency would not make it through the House and would expire. In the face of this threat, solar-industry stocks were pummeled heavily in the market, with First Solar down 25 percent.

Both the House and Senate have extended the credits and agreed on how to pay for them. But Senate Republicans will not let them proceed without other tax extensions, and House Democrats have been unwilling to pass those tax extensions without paying for them as well, which the Senate Republicans have blocked.

Because Congress needs to come back to deal with the credit-market crisis, there's still a chance for the House to pass the full Senate package, so let your House member know that you want action on clean energy -- now!

The House and Senate are each blaming the other for the failure to move on this vital and uncontroversial clean-energy measure. But, more fundamentally, this failure shows the peril of the Senate continuing to permit minority rule to govern its every move. Since the Republican Party, in 1993, began using the filibuster routinely against every important piece of legislation, the country has become, in my view, essentially ungovernable. No Democratic Senate leader has figured out how to do the public's business against a Republican minority empowered with the 60-vote rule and determined to use it to bring government to an effective halt. The Republican leadership during their years in the majority did better at moving routine legislation, but only because the Democrats never played the kind of scorched-earth game that the Republicans have been using masterfully since 1993.

And back home in California, the quirky requirement that our budget be passed by a two-thirds vote has had the same consequence. Even with a Republican governor as vigorous as Arnold Schwarzenegger and a Democratic majority able to work with him on other issues, the state's budget was held up for months by a die-hard Republican minority in the legislature.

Minority rule is fundamentally undemocratic. The filibuster numbers are not set in the Constitution or even in law -- they are simply rules of the Senate and could be changed to a simple majority, or 55, next January. The Democrats in the Senate won't want to change the rule -- just as they didn't in 1993, when observers (including me) warned them what the Republicans would do to Bill Clinton if they didn't. But there is probably no more important decision in the first 100 days of the next Congress than whether or not we restore majority rule to the U.S. Senate.