How Cloture Killed the 115th Congress
Whittier’s lament is an appropriate epitaph for the 115th Congress: “Of all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: it might have been.”
In 2016, the American people voted at a pivotal moment in the life of our country with a simple mandate: to “make America great again.” As a practical matter, this meant reviving the economy, balancing the budget, securing our borders and rescuing our healthcare system. To accomplish these goals, voters provided Republicans all the necessary tools: majorities in both houses of Congress and the Presidency.
If the Republican Congress had proven worthy of this trust, history would have looked back on the past two years as the turning point when America reclaimed its greatness and entered a new era of prosperity, solvency and security. The 116th Congress would be taking office with a clear mandate to build on that success.
What happened? Cloture.
Cloture is the Senate rule that requires 60 votes before a bill can be considered. Originally designed to protect the minority’s right to debate, it has degenerated into a very effective way for the minority to prevent any debate. Today, it gives minority Democrats the power to summarily reject almost every measure brought to the Senate.
House Republicans sent the Republican Senate over 1,300 bills during the last two years, fulfilling every promise made to the American people. The Senate acted on fewer than 300. Did the Senate, which absurdly boasts to be the greatest deliberative body in the world, carefully and meticulously deliberate over these measures and ultimately reject them? No, the greatest deliberative body in the world never took them up for even a moment of deliberation – all for lack of cloture.
That’s not the fault of Senate Democrats, who radically abused this rule as part of “the Resistance.” It is the fault of the Senate Republicans who let them by stubbornly refusing to reform the rules.
The only major accomplishments of this Congress were due to rare instances when cloture could be bypassed. The appointments of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court occurred only after Senate Republicans changed the rule – but only for Supreme Court confirmations.
The landmark tax reform bill could only be taken up and passed in the Senate by misusing a budget process called reconciliation, which avoids the cloture rule. Reconciliation is a once-a-year bill designed to control spending. It isn’t subject to the 60-vote rule, but it can only change laws to conform to spending levels set by the budget. Even then, it proved a mixed political blessing for Republicans: the limitations on deducting state and local taxes were all placed in the bill solely to conform to reconciliation requirements. Republicans got clobbered in the high-tax states where these provisions proved so unpopular.
The tax cuts triggered such dramatic economic growth that federal revenues increased, yet the deficit continued to widen. Why? Spending exploded, in part because House leaders hijacked reconciliation — the most potent tool to control spending — to get around the cloture rule.
Cloture turned healthcare from a winning to a losing issue for Republicans. House Republicans had proposed comprehensive health care reforms that rescued Americans from the bureaucratic labyrinth of Obamacare, restored their freedom of choice, protected those with pre-existing conditions and provided a supportive tax system to guarantee an affordable health plan for every family. Yet cloture made a comprehensive bill D.O.A. in the Senate, forcing House leaders to concoct a hodge-podge measure that could fit within the narrow rules for budget reconciliation. The mangled product that resulted couldn’t even muster a Senate majority. Since the replacement bill never took effect, Democrats could portray it any way they wanted.
The same story can be told of border security and funding for the long-promised border wall. Though majorities in both houses favored funding, cloture gave Senate Democrats the power to run out the clock toward a government shutdown.
Ironically, the political demographics of Senate elections allowed Senate Republicans to increase their majority while voter frustration decimated their House colleagues. The 115th Congress now passes into history, as Democrats take control of the House and end any chance to fulfill the hopes of 2016.
All that remains are history’s saddest words.