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An article today discusses the difference between the U.S. and Canadian political systems and claims to answer a simple question, but the main issue remains unanswered.

Why can Canada’s parliament vote for a change (in gun laws), but, even when a single party controls both the U.S. House and Senate, a change (in gun ownership laws) is all but impossible?

Is this, for example, one of the cases when the bar for a Senate vote is not simply 50% + 1 (VP, in the current Senate), but 60% or even two-thirds (66 or 67?)?

If two members of the House of Representatives sponsor a law (such as a background-checks law), the vote passes the House (assuming unanimous vote among representatives from the Democratic Party), and the vote is ratified by 50 Senators + VP vote (for the current Senate split at 50-50), does that not suffice for the law to pass (barring a presidential veto, which wouldn't be a concern here)?

Update

If the answer can be summarized as "If a few US Senators are opposed to a legislation then they can discuss it endlessly (filibuster)," please write that simply and explicitly. But why then does it matter whether 51 Senators or 80 Senators approve a bill, if in either case the remaining 49 or 20 Senators could filibuster it? How does endless debate suddenly become not viable as a tool for political paralysis if only 20 Senators disapprove?

Update 2

The intended stress in the question is not "why does the Canadian system work?". It works by a simple majority. The question instead seeks to understand how the U.S. system can be bogged down by procedures even when both branches of Congress have majorities that pursue an objective (whatever that objective might be; today it's no guns; tomorrow it may be no abortions).

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    This question's answers discuss some of the reasons why the US doesn't enact gun control legislation. One factor is that not all Democrats support gun control (particularly from rural states). But it also seems that even pro-gun-control Democrats aren't that keen on introducing legislation which will antagonise millions of gun-owners but not win as many votes from people who don't care about guns.
    – Stuart F
    Jun 2 at 20:33
  • The question seems to imply that the vice president is needed to reach a majority vote. That is not the case.
    – phoog
    Jun 2 at 21:55
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    Especially with gun laws in the US, the constitution is in the way. The US constitution is relatively good but in that regard maybe not that optimal. Who knows how founding fathers (and mothers) would decide today.
    – Trilarion
    Jun 3 at 6:18
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    Since Canada is mentioned... the changes to handgun ownership is being proposed. It hasn't been voted on, let alone passed. Not sure how Canadian parliament conservatives view it, probably somewhat negatively: the premier of Saskatchewan or Manitoba already came out against it. The law proposal itself is clever enough in that it targets guns-most-used-in-crimes, handguns, while leaving guns-most-used-for-useful-purposes (hunting, farm management), rifles, pretty much alone. Contrast w historical over-focus on rifles in Canada (due to mass shooting of women in Montreal 32 yrs ago). Jun 3 at 20:47
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    Canada's Parliament is for practical purposes almost unicameral. The Senate has very little ability to do anything; they mostly just rubber-stamp what the House of Commons does. Jun 4 at 20:16

7 Answers 7

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The biggest single difference is that in Canada the House of Commons is unequivocally the highest power in the land. If the House of Commons votes to do something then it will happen.

The Senate can impose a certain amount of delay, but ultimately it cannot override the wishes of the House of Commons. This approach was built into the constitution of Canada deliberately from the start, and in the views of many historians was deliberately designed like that as a contrast with the US approach of two equal chambers, after seeing how that system worked. It's worth noting that the House of Commons is the only elected legislative body, and it is from that that it derives its mandate, unopposable by the unelected Senate.

Under normal circumstances the government party will have a majority in the House of Commons, which means they can pass whatever legislation they want, unless there is significant opposition from their own party. If the government does not have a majority then they have to work out some kind of deal with other parties - either a formal coalition where parties share government, or (as in the current state) a less formal agreement where a small party agrees to support government legislation (provided they don't contain anything the smaller party disagrees with too vehemently) in return for the government putting forward measures the smaller party is advocating for.

The situation is made worse in the US by the strange setup of the US Senate where actual progress in practice takes a supermajority to be in agreement, a situation that occurs with increasing rarity. The Senate rules were set up with the assumption that the Senators would all be reasonable people who would lay aside party differences in order to pass necessary legislation.

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    @gerrit By being things that either both sides actually agree on, or by having just enough of a compromise built in to be unobjectionable to the minority (or by being something that someone with lots of money wants pushed through, because there are a whole slew of ways that it’s functionally legal to bribe politicians here in the US). Jun 3 at 12:02
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    Another factor is that in the Canadian system some motions can be considered confidence motions. If a confidence motion fails, either the opposition parties need to form a government that can pass bills (coalition), or an election is called. As a result, even if a minority party is in power they can still pass legislation. I'm not saying that the new gun law proposals will be a confidence motion, but simply that opposition parties in Canada are forced to acknowledge that they cannot oppose all government action along partisan lines all the time. Jun 3 at 13:49
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    @gerrit,AustinHemmelgarn Or, occasionally, by one party having 60 friendly senators. This last happened in 2009–2010, and the Affordable Care Act (aka "Obamacare") was passed during that brief window. Jun 3 at 18:52
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    @suchiuomizu My history books tell me no, it wasn't. While the British system was obviously the starting point for decisions, Canada didn't just blindly follow it, and an elected senate was considered during Confederation and rejected. Jun 4 at 13:32
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    The Westminster system may have evolved, but each step was intelligently designed. And the Canadian system was intelligently designed from scratch. The decision to follow the Westminster system (and the specific changes made to it for Canada) was made deliberately and intelligently. Jun 5 at 2:37
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Is this, for example, one of the cases when the bar for a Senate vote is not simply 50% + 1 (VP, in the current Senate), but 60% or even two-thirds (66 or 67?)?

Most proposed legislation only needs a simple majority to pass in both the House of Representatives and Senate. There's a catch, however, specific to the Senate. The Senate needs to get a chance to even discuss a proposed piece of legislation (e.g., a proposed gun law) before they can begin discussing it, and later it needs to get a chance to vote on the proposed legislation before they can do so.

Both motions (bringing a bill forward and later voting on it) are subject to endless debate. Being the more deliberative body of the two bodies of Congress, the Senate allows endless debate on most legislation and on rule changes.

The only way to stop these endless debates is to invoke cloture, which puts an end-time on the debate over a bill. A cloture motion on most legislation needs 3/5 of the sitting Senators (60 Senators) to pass and put an end to the endless debate.

Nowadays, an endless debate (aka a filibuster) is not needed. All that's needed is for 41 Senators to indicate they would filibuster some proposed piece of legislation. In that case, that piece of legislation is typically tabled or withdrawn. The end result is that proposed legislation needs 60 Senators to be in favor of it.

Aside: Rule changes need 2/3 of the Senators who are present to approve a cloture motion to end debate on a proposed rule change. Senators would filibuster a rule change that would effectively end the filibuster.

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    Cloture requires a vote of 3/5, not 2/3 (which is why you need 60 senators, not 67).
    – phoog
    Jun 2 at 21:58
  • So... on certain subjects we in the U.S. have minority rule. By the Senate's self imposed rules certain types of laws are not subject to filibuster and require only simple majority to move forward and then pass while other types of laws (again by Senate's own self imposed rules) are subject to filibuster and therefore can be held hostage and kept from Senate action by a minority.
    – BradV
    Jun 2 at 22:00
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    @bradv the minority can't pass bills either, so it forces the sides to compromise at least enough to get 10 senators from the other party to agree. Jun 2 at 22:13
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    @BradV - That is not what minority rule is. In minority rule, a group that is less than 50% of the population can create rules without the consent of the rest of the population, but of course the filibuster does not allow this. Cloture is actually super-majority rule, whose extreme form is unanimity (everyone has to agree on something). Mind you, the Senate does have minority rule, but not because of the filibuster, but rather because state-level elections favor low-population states (and to a lesser extent, because it is an elected body in the first place).
    – Obie 2.0
    Jun 2 at 22:27
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    "Rule changes need 2/3 of the Senators who are present to approve a cloture motion to end debate on a proposed rule change." This might be true in a technical sense, but there is the so called "Nuclear option". The nuclear option was already used once by the Democrats in 2013 to make simple majority enough for cloture on nominations other than those to the Supreme Court. So it seems the filibuster is surviving mostly because neither side dares to get rid of it entirely.
    – jkej
    Jun 3 at 20:17
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I'm not familiar with the system in Canada. However, the one in the United States is sufficiently convoluted to know that it is the 'problem' in this comparison.

The Constitution of the United States instates a Congress holding legislative power; Congress is divided into two (mostly) equal chambers called the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Constitution spells out that the House be composed of members from each state according to their population and elected every two years while the Senate is composed of two members per state elected on staggered terms. The Constitution makes no further mention about how bills are to be voted on except that the Vice President holds the power to cast a tie-breaking vote in an equally divided Senate. However, for a bill to pass Congress both the House and the Senate most vote in favour.

As far as I am aware, the House conducts most of its business by simple majority vote; including motions on whether to vote on a bill. By contrast, the Senate's Standing Rules include Rule XXII (Precedence of Motions) which includes a very lengthy text that I shall not quote. The consequence of that text is that debate on a bill does not end until 60 senators (three fifths) vote to end debate in a motion for cloture. After cloture, a bill is voted on regularly and the usual 50+ % or tie-breaking VP vote come into play.

The Senate can vote to override these rules (effectively giving itself new rules) by simple majority vote as specified in Article 1 of the Constitution. It has not done so and it does not seem like there is a majority for such a rule change.

Until such a time, a bill effectively needs a supermajority of 3/5 of all senators to pass; as the current majority is only 50 % plus the Vice President, as the current minority is strictly opposed to any gun control (or many other policies the majority might want to implement), and as there is no majority for a change in rules, the Senate is effectively gridlocked.


tl;dr:

As per Senate rules, 60 of 100 Senators must agree to end debate before a bill is voted on. 41 Senators disagreeing with the content of a bill is enough to kill it by not ending debate.

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    @frеdsbend I mean, in most other countries if a party or coalition has a 50 % majority in all necessary chambers of parliament (e.g. UK HoC, German Bundestag and Bundesrat, both Japenese houses, both Australian Chambers), they will propose, debate, vote on and implement their proposed solution of 'contentious issues', whichever ones we may be talking about in practice. The key point is that the US has the additional stumbling block of 3/5 of Senators that needs explaning to non-US citizens.
    – Jan
    Jun 3 at 16:33
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    To be honest the senate didn't always have the filibuster and it was introduced by accident after someone tried to clean up the rules in the past.
    – Joe W
    Jun 3 at 17:08
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    @Jan But it needs to be noted that it was not the intent of the founders when they setup the system. Many people seem to think the the filibuster was designed into the system when it wasn't and when comparing to other countries that needs to be remembered especially as it is something the senate can change at any time.
    – Joe W
    Jun 3 at 17:40
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    @JoeW Coming from a country that has amended its constitution 64 times since its promulgation in 1949, I couldn't really care any less about what a bunch of people in the 18th century said or did. As for how baked in the filibuster is, I believe I made sure to state that 1) it is not in the constitution and 2) it can be changed whenever the Senate sees fit to do so with a simple majority (2nd and 4th paragraphs of my answer).
    – Jan
    Jun 3 at 17:45
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    @Jan And you have shown why it needs to be noted as the filibuster has nothing to do with the constitution but rules of operation of the senate. The removal of the filibuster would just require 51 (or 50 + 1 tie breaker) vote to change. The problem is that one party wishes to keep it in place and they have convinced members of the other party to go along with them.
    – Joe W
    Jun 3 at 17:48
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Two problems with that idea. The first being that different countries hold different beliefs and will have a different idea on things like gun control.

Second being that one party does not control the all 3 parts of the government (both chambers and the white house) as there are 48 democrats, 50 republicans and 2 independents. At best you can say with the support of both independents they have half of the chamber and the tie breaking vote from the VP. While they can force things through if it comes to a vote not every democrat is going to supp0ort gun control for various reasons. Though regardless of that they still would need 60 votes to end the filibuster and they have no chance of getting that.

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  • I wrote gun laws in brackets in several instances to point out that it's not my objective here (your first point) to debate any belief system. I am trying to understand why Congress cannot pass a law even when it's controlled by Democrats. In your second point you are basically saying that one of the two parties has nominal, but not actual, majority—at least on some particularly thorny issues; is it that simple?
    – Sam
    Jun 2 at 21:12
  • @Sam I am not sure what the point of your question is without the focus on gun control is but even without that my answer still stands. The simple fact that the political makeup of both countries is different and that impacts what they will vote on. Also no one party has control of the senate and at best they can break ties as the problem is that anyone can stop anything from coming to a vote unless the people wanting the vote can get 60 votes to stop the filibuster.
    – Joe W
    Jun 2 at 21:16
  • The US congress has 2 chambers, not 3.
    – phoog
    Jun 2 at 21:56
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    Those two I senators do caucus with the Dems, so it's often assumed they'll vote with them.
    – frеdsbend
    Jun 2 at 22:35
  • @fredsbend the president is not a "chamber" and the president's role in the enactment of legislation does not fall within the definition of "vote."
    – phoog
    Jun 2 at 22:41
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In Canada, control of guns is not controversial in the same way as in US. In effect the laws can be debated and changed.

If gun control was less controversial in US the laws could be changed even if it might take a bit of time and effort to pass through the process. I find that NRA and their lobbying work has been very successful in making even a discussion difficult. The situation is quite different in most other countries, as well as in Canada, where no pro-gun group has similarily strong political power.

Changing gun laws might require a change to the constitutional 2:nd amendment. The interpretation of the this amendment done by the supreme court sets limits to other laws. But changes has been done before as witnessed by the 18:th amendment beeing repelled (technically, by the 21:st amendment). This shows that if the political will is there laws can be changed.

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A number of answers focus on procedural issues — filibuster, separation of powers, and so on. These issues are irrelevant. If the US had a unicameral legislature run on simple majority, no additional gun laws would come into effect.

The reason is two-fold:

First, we are a Constitution republic: the power of the legislature is tightly constrained by our Constitution, and that constraint is taken quite seriously by both the courts and the electorate. Firearms are specially called out for protection.

Recently, during a debate about gun control, a frustrated representative from Rhode Island, David Cicilline, blurted out, “Spare me the bullshit about constitutional rights.” This clip is likely to run on-loop during the campaign this summer.

Second, gun control is simply not that popular. Hundreds of millions of Americans own guns, hundreds of millions more support the gun ownership. In a country of only 330 million people, that means that a gun-control law would have to be very narrowly written to have any hope of passage.

The “assault weapon ban“ of 1994 forbade the sale of the type of weapon involved in perhaps 1% of all crime — and was itself so unpopular it was allowed to expire. A bill that covered any serious fraction of weapons actually in use would never pass in the current legal and political environment.

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    You will notice that I was very careful to state the question as one regarding procedures. In other words, the question applies just as well—except for contemporaneity—to abortion, universal health care, etc. Your discussion of gun laws and the second amendment may be perfectly accurate, but it is unrelated to the present question. What you wrote is not an answer to the question asked. (I am not downvoting; I'll let others vote up/down as they see fit.)
    – Sam
    Jun 4 at 15:52
  • If any increase in restrictions on gun ownership would be per se unconstitutional (which is how I read your argument that status as a constitutional republic means that "no additional gun laws would come into effect" even were there not structural blockers), why was the 1994 ban allowed to run until it expired, instead of being struck down by the courts? Jun 6 at 0:11
  • @CharlesDuffy — in 2004, when the ban expired, SCOTUS had not spoken on gun control since Miller in 1939 — and that opinion was very vague. It wasn’t until the Heller (2008) and [McDonald](en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McDonald_v._City_of_Chicago decisions that the Court explicitly recognized what was obvious to everyone else: the 2nd Amendment protects individual rights and applies to every level of government. Jun 6 at 23:13
  • @sam — I did not notice that at the time and do not see it now. If I tacked on “Few politicians are willing to commit political suicide in a failed attempt to pass a law that would be struck down by the first court to see it anyway”, would that explain the “process” question? Jun 6 at 23:15
  • @MichaelLorton Probably. But still. Taking a risk that may be political suicide is the moral thing to do when you have dozens of parents wondering whether their grade-school children were butchered for nothing. It's easy to imagine Mitch McConnell huffing—in Walter Matthau style—and exclaiming Big Deal when told that yet twenty more kids were mowed down by a lunatic. There may be dozens of reasons why the filibuster is needed, but that does not make the system any less decrepit, just like these amoral senators proclaiming "principle" and "justice".
    – Sam
    Jun 6 at 23:58
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An aspect not yet mentioned is that political backlash from legislation that gets enacted is often much stronger than the backlash politicians face when voting for legislation that does not get passed. Politicians often know, before voting, whether a piece of legislation will pass in their chamber, and will often have a pretty good idea of whether it would get enacted if their chamber passes it. The mid-term elections that followed the 1993 enactment of the Assault Weapons Ban resulted in a rather dramatic shift of the house/Senate balance against the people that had voted for it, and even if the Democrats might have the power to ram legislation through if they pushed sufficiently hard, doing so would likely cost them politically.

What matters in the poltiical balance are not Democrat-leaning voters who would support such legislation, nor Republican-leaning voters who would oppose it, but rather how the number of voters who would lean Democrat, but oppose anyone who enacts such legislation, compares to the number of voters who would lean Republican, but oppose anyone who blocks such legislation. If both numbers of people are high, then many politicians will favor an outcome where they can appear to support legislation but not have it actually get enacted. While it's true that procedural obstacles may block some legislation that would otherwise pass, not all legislation that is blocked by such obstacles would have been enacted in their absence.

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