Its Simple Reform the Filibuster Shame the Hypocrites

Richard Eskow

There are a lot of complicated issues out there, ones that require detailed analysis and serious number-crunching. The Senate will be debating its own filibuster procedures over the next three weeks, which will give us plenty of time to dig into the numbers. But the basic principle is surprisingly simple: it’s about democracy itself. So why aren’t we calling our Senators right now and telling them to fix the Senate’s ridiculous filibuster procedures? It could be the biggest step toward real democracy we’ve taken since abolishing the poll tax.

It’s easy enough to make a call. Don’t know their phone numbers? You can find them here - unless you don’t know what state you live in, in which case I can’t help you. I know what state I’m in: a state of exasperation with the United States Senate. You probably are, too.

Republican Senators have been abusing the filibuster for years now, sometimes aided and abetted by a few Democrats. And they abuse the threat of a filibuster even more, by using it as a bargaining chip to make secret deals. (I think it’s been used as an excuse for not getting more done, too.). And now that there’s finally a good proposal to reform the filibuster process, one that actually has a chance of passing, we’re hearing that Harry Reid might cut a deal with Mitch McConnell instead. The last thing we need is a backroom deal designed to protect all sorts of future backroom deals.

Seriously: Is there a bigger hypocrite on the planet that Mitch McConnell? To an extent never approached in history, Republicans have been using the filibuster to suppress public debate on one critically important issue after another. Voters don’t even get to find out where their Senators stand on key issues. How can they cast an informed vote under those circumstances? What’s more, a single Senator can even put a “secret hold” on a vote while conceal his identity, by asking another Senator to place the hold for him or her anonymously

If I were taking a more analytical approach, I’d show exactly how many thousands of times more clout a small-state voter has than a large-state voter. Not that the filibuster system is all that fair to small state voters, either. It’s cheaper for special interests to swing elections in the smaller states, so they flood them with so much money that it distorts the voters’ choices there. Nobody wins under the filibuster -except the politicians and the big-dollar donors.

How does Mitch McConnell describe the latest honorable attempt to end this system of abusive, corrosive, corrupting, undemocratic power? It’s a “power grab,” he says. He dismisses the evidence of Republican obstructionism by claiming that Democrats are only counting the increased number of cloture votes, which are needed to end filibusters. That’s a “gimmick,” says McConnell.

That’s like saying crime in our town isn’t really increasing – it just looks that way because cops are making more arrests.

I know I said I wasn’t going to use math, but can I throw in one little chart right here?

2011-01-06-filibuster.jpg

This shows that as soon as the Democrats took control of the Senate, the Republicans started using the filibuster – a tool normally reserved for matters of conscience – to hijack the entire political process. And charts like these don’t show us how many times an important, popular, and desperately needed measure was never even brought up, because Democrats knew the Republicans would filibuster. In those cases they cut a backroom deal instead. Frankly, more of these matters should have been brought to the floor, so that the nation could see its business was being hijacked. But even though this chart only tells part of the story, it’s shocking.

Think back over the last several years: How many times were we told that we couldn’t have a desperately needed element of health reform or financial reform because “President” Olympia Snowe used the power of the veto? Or President Kent Conrad? Or President Max Baucus?

Or President Joe Lieberman?

Do you remember ever seeing any of those names at the top of a Presidential ballot? Because I sure don’t. But I certainly remember hearing about how they killed vitally needed policies just so that a bill could be debated.

You know, the House passed a lot of great legislation last year – legislation Senators were able to kill with the filibuster. “Democrats should reflect on what they have done to alienate voters,” writes McConnell. But what alienated voters was that not enough got done. And that’s because of the filibuster.

What’s more, the House passed better legislation than we ultimately got – health reform with a public option, stronger financial reform to reign in Wall Street – only to see these important provisions killed without even a public discussion. How undemocratic is that? Even 51% of Republicans wanted the public option (sorry – another number), and people in all parties want more of a crackdown on Wall Street.

The filibuster became a stealth weapon for killing needed and popular reforms silently and secretly, with no consequences for the shooters. Filibustering Senators: They’re the snipers of the legislative process.

Senate Democrats like Jeff Merkley and Tom Udall have a reform proposal, and it’s pretty good. While it’s not enough to make the Senate a truly democratic body, it’s a huge improvement over what we have today. Their proposal is a rare creature in this day and age: a genuinely moderate, balanced, reasonable compromise that doesn’t suck.

Just as they were making their announcement, word leaked out that Harry Reid’s negotiating behind closed doors with Mitch McConnell. Hmm … a good-faith negotiation with GOP Senators. How’d that work for you last time? (Or the time before that? Or the time before that?) It would be a much better idea if the American people had the chance to hear some public debate about the filibuster instead. (Public debate, Senators: Surely you’ve heard of it?) Let’s see who really opposes the democratic process.

Not that everybody’s ashamed to defend the filibuster in public. In fact, the Heritage Foundation’s holding a big event for those people: They’re called lobbyists. It’s no wonder they love the filibuster. it’s been used over and over to protect abusive and dangerous corporate behavior.

The Merkley/Udall proposal doesn’t have everything it should. But it would stop Senators from blocking debate and then hiding their actions from the voters. And it would end that little gadget that every Senator possesses: a remote control for overriding the democratic process. The “secret hold” lets a Senator hit the “mute” button on public debate without even getting out of the easy chair in his Georgetown condo.

Imagine how much honest the Senate will be if the Udall/Merkley proposal passes. You want to filibuster something, pal, you’re gonna have to get up on your feet and rock it Jimmy Stewart style. Bernie Sanders did it that way last month, and that’s how it should be done. Sure, some Senators don’t want to bother. It’s not fun to work that hard just for money. That’s why the filibuster was traditionally used only for matters of conscience. (Conscience: Surely you’ve heard of it, Senators?)

So please, make the call. Tell your Senators you want filibuster reform. And tell Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell you don’t want a backroom deal that protects backroom deals. It’s that simple. And the only number you need to have is their phone number.

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