Cloture Rules: How Obama May Bring One-Party Rule to America

Consider the following:

*An unpopular Republican president leaving office in the midst of an

*Unpopular war and

*Severe recession (or possibility of one)

*Voters have swept Democrats into power

*The mood is for change in how things are done in Washington, D.C.

The year is not 2008, the president is not George W. Bush. The year is 1974, the president is Richard M. Nixon, and the “Class of 1974” Democrats are ready to sweep into Congress and rewrite the rules that govern the political process.

Why is this flashback important? Because the following year (1975), those “change” politicians did rewrite the rule on “cloture“: the parliamentary motion to end debate on a bill, including filibusters. In 1974, it took two-thirds of the U.S. Senate to approve cloture and force a vote on a bill. After the 1975 reform, it took only 60% of the Senators to shut down debate. This naturally leads to the question:

What will prevent the Democrats from rewriting the rules to lower the cloture bar to 51 Senators? In practical terms, that means the gagging of the Republican minority. We will have one-party rule, utterly. The only downside is that voters might see it as a power grab (which it is) but with a smooth-talking president of the same party, who will raise the issue? Surely the Democrats will spin it as as democracy in action; after all, it still takes a majority to shut down debate, correct? But this would be a sea change in the way Congress does business and it may leave the GOP gasping for air.

1993 was the last time the Democrats controlled the White House and Congress. Bill Clinton floated universal health care and it bombed, in part because of the outrage fomented by conservative talk show radio.

Compare that time period, when small-government conservatives and libertarians got the message out via radio, with today’s situation:

*Multiple media outlets all vying for the voter’s attention

*The Internet is a powerful force, whereas in 1992 it scarcely scored on the public radar (Google didn’t get started until the late 1990s!)

*Social networking is way up, newspaper readership (and radio listening) is way down.

*There are no conservative Democrats left as there were during the 1975 cloture debate. Those opponents of cloture reform forced a compromise requiring 60% of all U.S. Senators sworn into office, not jut 60% of those “present” (God knows, our president-elect knows all about being “present” during important votes!).

Liberartarians were rightly critical of the Republicans up to 2006, when the voters threw the bums out of office. Many libertarians are still angry at the big government conservatism ushered in by George W. Bush and even welcome an Obama presidency as some sort of Pyrrhic payback for having ever slept with the GOP.

At the same time, many libertarians recognize that divided government is the best real-world check on the short-term growth of government (in a later blog, I will address the long term). By any measure, one-party rule by a left-wing party is not good for the values libertarians hold dear.

If cloture reform does not worry you, I will not mention the frequent talk in the 1970s about statehood for the District of Columbia—guaranteed Democratic seats in the U.S. Congress.

In a word, gird your loins and get ready for unchecked Democratic rule. If you thought it could not get worse than unified GOP rule, then history may prove you wrong.

Then again, it may prove me wrong. That would be a very good thing for us all. I welcome being wrong!

Jonathan Bean is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, Professor of History at Southern Illinois University, and editor of the Independent book, Race & Liberty in America: The Essential Reader.
Full Biography
Beacon Posts by Jonathan Bean
  • Catalyst