The new normal

THE NEW NORMAL…. The Washington Post‘s Perry Bacon Jr. and Paul Kane report today on Democratic senators doing this week exactly what they’ve been doing every week since 2007.

Senate Democrats spent their first full day holding 60 votes just as they have spent the previous 2 1/2 years without such a supermajority: scrambling to find Republican support for their key initiatives in order to choke off potential filibusters. […]

If efforts fail on the bipartisanship front, Democrats are hoping that a tactical parliamentary move will get them around the need for GOP support.

In a closed-door meeting immediately after Franken’s swearing-in, Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) asked his caucus to always join ranks in supporting cloture votes. Those procedural votes require 60 senators to agree to halt debate, a step that would derail any potential filibuster.

Once cloture is invoked and the bill moves toward a final vote, Democrats would need just 50 votes on the last roll call, allowing up to 10 conservative Democrats to vote against the legislation.

As we know, of course, center-right Democrats refuse to make such a commitment to their own caucus. Senators like Ben Nelson and Evan Bayh continue to say they may help Republicans stop key bills from even coming to the floor for an up or down vote.

But there’s another detail that the Post article didn’t mention, and which is summarily ignored by the political establishment: we’re dealing with a procedural dynamic that has never existed in American history. There’s never been a time in U.S. history in which a Senate minority caucus could simply stop the majority from bringing all bills and/or mildly controversial nominees to the floor for a vote.

I’m not trying to pick on Bacon and Kane here, but the piece makes the current dynamic — every vote gets a filibuster, and it’s up to an easily-divided Democratic caucus to overcome this hurdle — seem customary and normal, as this is just the way the American government has always operated.

It’s not. Without a hint of debate, the rules have changed, and mandatory supermajorities on everything have become routine. Matt Yglesias recently noted, “This is a very new ‘tradition’ in American governance, it goes against everyone’s common understanding of how democratic procedures are supposed to work, and there’s very little reason to believe that the results will be beneficial in the long run.”

Quickly and quietly, the political establishment came to accept that 60-vote minimums on everything of significance are customary. It’s become something everyone simply “knows,” despite the fact that this is a fairly radical departure from American norms.

If the nation is comfortable with this dramatic departure from the way the system was designed to function, fine. But let’s not pretend this is normal.