Sunday, December 27, 2009

On Killing The Filibuster

If you doubt the fact that the Republican party's only agenda is to stop every significant piece of legislation proposed by their Democratic foes, take a look at the chart in Norm Ornstein's Our Broken Senate. The article is a "must read", but because a picture is worth a thousand words you should at least take a peek at the visual representation of what has happened since Democrats took power away from Republicans in the 2006 election: the number of times cloture had to be invoked to thwart a filibuster has nearly doubled from its recent historical high of the 106th Congress.

This rise in the use of the filibuster, says Norm Ornstein, is one of the symptoms of a broken Senate, a legislative body that can thwart any attempts to introduce significant reform, thanks to a large degree to stalling techniques like the filibuster, a power that is nowhere in the Constitution but that more than any other has the effect of reducing the Senate to the place "where reform goes to die." (Not my expression, but one that I like to quote often for its ability to condense the truth in 5 words.)

As you may know, the threat of a filibuster is one of the main reasons while the Senate's recent health care reform bill falls so badly short of needed reform that many progressives have voiced their opposition to it.

Sen. Harkin (D-IA) now says that he may reintroduce a bill to reform the filibuster in January. Harkin's opponents will try to accuse him of wanting to reform the filibuster because Democrats are in power and changing filibuster rules will benefit them. The accusation should not stick, though, since Harkin originally brought forth the idea of reforming the filibuster when Democrats were in the minority. Ironically, at that time, 15 years ago, one of his allies was Sen. Douche Evilman Lieberman, who has recentlygone on to become the perfect symbol of the corruption of the political process that has made the filibuster more relevant than the president's constitutionally-granted veto power.

My sense of the issue is that the filibuster may be useful, even desirable if used judiciously. For example, it prevents the minority party from being steamrolled for entire legislatures (well, at least it makes it harder.) But since it is obvious that Senators cannot be trusted with making judicious use of the disproportionate, enormous power that the Constitution entrusts them with, reform of the filibuster is at this point necessary for the legislative process not to grind to a complete halt. The question is not if reforming the filibuster is desirable, but how.

Sen. Harkin proposes a "time-limited" filibuster, which would automatically expire after a given period of time (30 days?). I do not like this kind of "timer" mechanism, because a) it would still have the effect of slowing the legislative process to a crawl, and b) it would simply add another facet to the kabuki theater that the Senate has turned in.

My personal preference would be for a mechanism that would not make the filibuster irrelevant, while at the same time resetting the balance of power in Congress between the House and the Senate. As things stand, the Senate enjoys too much power. Many bills born in the House never make it into law because of the obstructionism exerted by Senators. (Which is why I like so much the expression I mentioned earlier, that the Senate is "where reform goes to die.") So, for example, I would favor a system in which the numbers required for the filibuster remain the same in the Senate (requiring 60% of senators to end one) while giving the House the power to end a Senate filibuster if 55% of its members vote for cloture. Why 55% and not 60%? Frankly, it is an entirely arbitrary number, but it seems to me that 60%, being as high a percentage as the one required by the Senate for cloture, would mean that nothing would change.

Setting the percentage required in the House to reverse a filibuster in the Senate at 55% would have two main desirable effects, in my opinion:
  1. It would encourage the Senate to work toward a workable compromise to thwart the threat of a cloture vote in the House (because Senators would not want to relinquish their power to the "lower" house.
  2. It would restore a significant portion of the legislative power to the House, which--after all--is the one body of Congress that best reflects the political composition of the nation (in other words, it best embodies the spirit of the "one man, one vote" principle; in the Senate, each state gets two senators, regardless of size, so that one senator from the smallest state in the Union, Wyoming, can single-handedly halt reform needed by 99.9% of the people.)
There are other ways to restructure the filibuster so that it does not effectively mean the end of meaningful reform. One would be to give the president the power to override a certain number of filibusters in each session of Congress. Another would be to give the Senate majority the power to vote for cloture with a lower number of votes than 60, a certain number of times during each session of Congress. Some of these changes may require a Constitutional amendment, some may simply require a change in the Senate rules (the latter being definitely the preferred method).

In any case, it has become painfully obvious that the status quo is not tolerable, and that the nation cannot be hold hostage by a small number of obstructionist senators, bought and paid for by special interest that row against the country's best interest.

As usual, you may do your part by contacting your elected representatives.


John Stockwell said...

So what? The Republicans are being the loyal
opposition. Now, if the public gets behind everything
out of the Obama administration, then those
Republicans will be on the wrong side of the
vote, and may be out in the next election.

The Senate should not be a rubber stamp for
the whims of the Democratic party.

If the shoe were on the other foot, you would
be singing a different tune.

Sirfab said...

I find the "loyal opposition" argument quite disingenous, since the Republican opposition to things like "cap and trade" or health care reform has been less than loyal (unless by loyal you mean loyal to the masters of the Republican party, in which case I would have to agree). Had it been loyal in the sense I interpret loyal we would not have had to sit through months of scare tactics such as the threat of "death panels", "abortion paid with federal funds", "government bureaucrats making health care decisions instead of you or your doctor", etc. That does not fit the definition of loyal, much less that of honest.

And no, the Senate should not be a rubber stamp for the will of anyone, but it should not require a supermajority for every piece of important legislation to pass. That confers way to much power (which engenders corruption) to a handful of key senators. In any case, go back and review most of the Bush years, and honesty tell me that the Senate was not a Republican rubber stamp for the will of President Bush and the G.O.P.

And no, I would not be singing a different tune if the shoe were on the other foot, because, unlike Republicans, I don't see such things through the lenses of political convenience, which is changing and ephemeral by nature.

In any case, the whole health care reform fiasco underscores how important it is to move towards public campaign financing and remove (some of) the influence of money from the political process.

Sirfab said...

One more thing, about "loyal opposition": If you are looking for loyal opposition, you will find it among the progressiv Democrats who have chastised the president over and over for his seemingly lackadaisacal approach to health care reform, for caving in to special interests (banking, insurance, PhRMA, etc.), for keeping in place some of the most obnoxious "security" policies of the Bush era. People who put their loyalty to the country ahead of their loyalty to party or president. Just look for the many posts on this blog critical of the Administration.

There is nothing loyal about the opposition of those who say to the American people "Kill health care reform or you grandma will die." Just the basest politics at their worst.

John Stockwell said...

According to a recent Gallup poll:

a mere 44% of the US population favors Obama
Care. The Republican party is representing the
other 60%.

Basically, the Republicans are dead in the water.
With a filibuster proof 60% in the Senate and
a majority in the House, the Democrats basically
run the game.

Complaining about perceived Republican intransigence is what is really disingenuous.

Sirfab said...

John, I vehemently disagree.

When 40 Republicans vote in bloc against anything at all it is not disingenuous to call them obstructionist. (Republicans can vote in bloc against almost anything Democrats are trying to pass. Cosider that more than 30 of the 40 Republican senators managed to find the gall to vote against the Franken Amendment.)

Keep in mind that one theoretically Democratic senator is Joe Lieberman, whom I'd like to waterboard just a little (since he himself is not against it) to make him confess that he is really the 41st Republican in the Senate. There goes your so-called "filibuster-proof" majority.

If you then add to the despicable Joe Lieberman the many Democrats in name only like Ben Nelson, Kent Conrad, Max Baucus, etc. (incidentally all Democrats in predominantly Red states) you can see that there is nothing disingenuous about complaining about intransigence (or corruption, masked as ideological intransigence) of any stripes.

Also, a majority of Americans have declared they are in favor of health care reform (if reform is used to keep insurance companies in their place, the majority is quite substantial, the number decreases a little when government involvement in providing health care is at issue).

The reason why recent polls have shown that most Americans disagree with the health care reform proposal that president Obama seems intent on signing is that a great number of progressives have joined the core opponents of reform (mostly disgruntled Republicans and right-leaning independents) in opposing reform IF it does not include a public option. I am one of the not-so-enthused individuals who hold their nose and tepidly support a bill which provides that all Americans must now buy a bad product, health insurance provided by companies hell-bent on screwing their customers.

Here's to hoping the New Year brings us a better class of Congressmen and women than the one we have now. (Holding nose, not holding breath.)

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