It didn’t used to be this way

IT DIDN’T USED TO BE THIS WAY…. We’ve heard “it takes 60 votes to get anything done in the Senate” so many times over the last several years, much of the political world has more or less internalized the argument. Requiring supermajorities on everything has slowly become routine, and it rarely occurs to the establishment and those who cover it to question the dramatic shift.

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With that in mind, Ezra Klein posts a copy of this fascinating letter from the LBJ presidential library, sent in by Yale student David Broockman. It shows correspondence from Mike Manatos, Johnson’s Senate liaison, soon after the president had won re-election. (If it’s a little tough to read, click on it for a larger view.) Manatos was counting heads, seeing how many Medicare supporters lost re-election, but how many Medicare supporters were poised to enter the chamber.

“[I]f all our supporters are present and voting,” Manatos noted, “we would win by a vote of 55 to 45.”

Imagine that. An important piece of legislation could be approved by the Senate if “only” 55 senators out of 100 supported it. In 1965, a 55-vote majority in the Senate meant a victory. In 2009, a 56-vote majority in the Senate means a defeat. Or, more accurately, a 56-vote majority can’t even get a bill brought to the floor for a vote in the first place.

Ezra added, “The filibuster of yesteryear, in other words, was not a supermajority requirement. It was closer to a tantrum. That’s not to say it was never used to prevent a vote: Southerners did exactly that to block the Civil Rights Act, and Johnson was forced to find 67 votes to break their effort. But such measures were left for extraordinary moments, not built into the everyday workings of the body. The use of the filibuster has changed, and with it, so too has the Senate.”

This is unsustainable. The Senate wasn’t design to function this way, it didn’t use to function this way, and the sooner majority-rule is brought back, the sooner the institution can help govern again.