Friday, August 21, 2009

Counting Backwards

Congress is complicated, sure, and it's never quite so easy as saying that one either has the votes or doesn't, but still...where the votes are really does matter quite a lot more than partisans really think. For example, Matt Yglesias snarks:
Another moral of the story is that Eastland’s chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee obviously made passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 impossible. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and President Lyndon Johnson dealt with this by just . . . not letting the bill get bottled up in committee and bringing it to the floor instead. The sky didn’t fall! Leading politicians decided that justice was more important that the dead hand of Senate procedure and they brought the bill to the floor where it was voted on.
Yes, it took some creative legislative maneuvering to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But Lyndon Johnson didn't suddenly get smart or get creative or lose undue respect for Senate norms between the 1950s and 1964; he got a whole lot of new votes. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed with 73 votes in the Senate, and 289 votes in the House. In other words, "leading politicians decided that justice was more important than the dead hand of Senate procedure" when they had the votes to make it happen.

I don't know the history of this as well as I should, but I'd also add that in an atmosphere in which almost everyone of both parties outside of the south was voting for civil rights, few Members of Congress really had to worry about their vote costing them anything. Did any challengers in California or Wisconsin or New York run against the Civil Rights Act in the 1964 elections, or against the Voting Rights Act in the 1966 elections? I expect the answer is no, although I really don't know the history of it.

The situation today is of course very different. Democrats in North Dakota and Nebraska and Montana do have to worry about electoral consequences of their votes on health care. They may be (they probably are) overestimating the danger, but they're not inventing it out of whole cloth. Max Baucus isn't a random obstacle who by dumb luck has way more power than he should because he happens to be chair of the Senate finance committee. Max Baucus is one of a handful of Democrats who find health care reform a really tough vote.

If Yglesias can find 73 votes in the Senate for a bill he likes -- if he can find 67 votes, or even if he can find 60 solid votes (who are willing to be the only 60 votes) -- I'm sure that Barack Obama and Harry Reid would be more than happy get that bill passed.

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