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The 60 Vote Myth that Will Not Die

One of the most annoying things about covering Congress is how completely almost everyone in the media has bought into the myth that it takes 60 votes to do anything in the Senate. Even people who should know better, like Paul Krugman, still spread this myth as if it was fact. From Krugman:

What about the argument, which I hear all the time, that Mr. Obama should have fixed the economy long ago? The claim goes like this: during his first two years in office Mr. Obama had a majority in Congress that would have let him do anything he wanted, so he’s had his chance.

The short answer is, you’ve got to be kidding.

As anyone who was paying attention knows, the period during which Democrats controlled both houses of Congress was marked by unprecedented obstructionism in the Senate. The filibuster, formerly a tactic reserved for rare occasions, became standard operating procedure; in practice, it became impossible to pass anything without 60 votes. And Democrats had those 60 votes for only a few months. Should they have tried to push through a major new economic program during that narrow window? In retrospect, yes — but that doesn’t change the reality that for most of Mr. Obama’s time in office U.S. fiscal policy has been defined not by the president’s plans but by Republican stonewalling.

While it is true the current interruption of the Senate rules requires 60 votes for a closure vote, this can easily be fixed. After all the sole arbiter of what the Senate rules mean is a majority of the serving senators.

It would take only about 10 minutes for a determined majority of senators to fix this filibuster issue. They could call a point of order and vote the filibuster unconstitutional. This “nuclear option” was almost used in 2005 to deal with judicial nominees.

Even without changing the Senate rules Democrats still had the option to use reconciliation to pass a new economic program with a simply majority at anytime during the first two years of Obama term. Democrats used the procedure to pass student loan reform under Obama and Republicans used it to pass the Bush tax cuts. Democrats could easily have used to pass more stimulus, like for example starting the Medicaid expansion right away, but they choose not to.

It is perfectly acceptable to point out what Republicans did, but lets not completely distort reality to strip Democrats of responsibility.  The real reason another economic program wasn’t passed in 2010 has basically nothing to do with some 60 vote rule in the Senate. It didn’t happen because Democrats simply didn’t want to pass one. If Democrats really want to they had the power to do it.

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Jon Walker

Jon Walker

Jonathan Walker grew up in New Jersey. He graduated from Wesleyan University in 2006. He is an expert on politics, health care and drug policy. He is also the author of After Legalization and Cobalt Slave, and a Futurist writer at

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