President Barack Obama exhorted Congress to begin its long-delayed work on comprehensive immigration reform in his State of the Union address Tuesday. If election-year politics make that impossible, Obama said, Congress should at least pass a law that would allow some young immigrants who were brought to the country illegally to remain.
Obama did not mention that the DREAM Act, a bill that would have accomplished just that, had won a majority of votes in both the House and the Senate two years ago. But a 55-41 Senate vote wasn't enough to prevent a threatened filibuster. The legislation was declared dead.
The bill's failure reflected a basic fact of how the modern Senate functions. As the filibuster has been transformed from an infrequently invoked tactic to a permanent threat, a simple majority is essentially meaningless. The difficulty of marshaling the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster in a bitterly divided Senate has again and again stymied Obama's domestic agenda.
Some of what's broken has to do with the way Congress does its business these days, Obama said during his speech. A simple majority is no longer enough to get anything -- even routine business -- passed through the Senate. The Senate is split between 51 Democrats and two Independents who sit with them, and 47 Republicans.
With Congressional approval ratings mired at historic lows, Obama has increasingly sought to bolster his re-election chances by criticizing Congress as ineffective and paralyzed by runaway partisanship. He invoked that theme in the State of the Union address, alluding to the acrimonious battle over raising the debt ceiling that brought the country to the precipice of defaulting on its loans.
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I bet most Americans are thinking the same thing right about now: Nothing will get done in Washington this year, or next year, or maybe even the year after that, because Washington is broken, Obama said. Can you blame them for feeling a little cynical? Obama may be mindful of the tactic used by President Harry S. Truman in 1948, when he attacked the Do Nothing 80th Congress in which both houses were controlled by the Republicans. Truman won a surprise victory over New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey, a Republican.
Condemning the corrosive influence of money in politics, Obama called for a law that would ban insider trading in Congress. The issue exploded into public view with a 60 Minutes investigation disclosing that powerful lawmakers including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) profited from well-timed stock market trades based on their knowledge of how legislation could affect certain industries. Unlike average citizens, members of Congress are exempt from insider trading laws.
Obama has repeatedly clashed with Congress over his appointments. Obama recently enraged Republicans by using a recess appointment to install Richard Cordray, former Ohio Attorney General, as head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau after Republicans had filibustered both Cordray and Obama's initial choice to head the agency, Elizabeth Warren. The Senate has made a practice of blocking judicial nominees from receiving a confirmation vote, contributing to an unprecedented number of vacancies in federal courts.
Over many years, however, a persistent problem has developed in the process of filling judicial vacancies, U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts, a Republican, said in a 2011 speech. Each political party has found it easy to turn on a dime from decrying to defending the blocking of judicial nominations, depending on their changing political fortunes.
Obama acknowledged that both Democrats and Republicans were complicit, noting that neither part has been blameless in these tactics, and called on the Senate to pass a rule requiring that every judicial or public service nominations receives an up or down vote within 90 days.