Filibuster Reform … But

Dave Johnson

“But.” Everything you read about the filibuster talks about how important the filibuster is, allowing a minority to retain some power over abuse by a majority… and then it says, “But.”

For example, the Camden, N.J., Courier Post editorial today, “Alter filibuster rules in Senate,” reads:

In a representative democracy, the minority group or party should never be without any power, and the filibuster in the Senate has proved an important tool for both Republicans and Democrats when they’ve been in the minority. It allows the minority party to have a voice in the legislative process, even when the majority party would like to ignore that voice.

But over the last decade, as partisan divisions in Washington have become more entrenched, the filibuster privilege has been overused and abused by both parties. In just the last two congresses, filibusters have been used to block legislation or nominees 275 times. During the eight years when Dwight Eisenhower was president from 1953 to 1961, the Senate had to vote just twice to stop filibusters, according to Senate records.

“But over the last decade…” “overused,” “used to block,” etc… “But.”

Of course the Courier Post threw in the “both sides” equivalence with no evidence. It’s a media rule that you can’t explain what conservatives are doing to the country without finding some way to equivalently blame “the other side.”

The Albany, N.Y. Times Union “Fix the Senate,” gets to the heart of the problem:

There actually were more filibusters in 2009 alone than in the 1950s and ’60s combined.

A tool designed to guard against the tyranny of the majority has instead led to the tyranny of the minority. It’s time for the Senate to consider allowing fewer than 60 votes to keep a bill under consideration. The rule of the majority, in both spirit and letter, remember, is just 51.

Even if a minority in the Senate is to retain this weapon, it should have to use it in a way that enhances debate, not undermines it.

More filibusters in the one year than the ’50s and ’60s combined…

The Problem: Blocking Everything

In the last two years Republicans pursued a strategy of trying to block everything — every bill, every nominee, every judge — and then campaigning saying that our country’s problems were not being fixed. It worked. They got away with it. And our country’s problems were not solved.

How bad is the problem? Last year one Senator placed a “blanket hold” on all Presidential appointments until he got earmarks for a defense contractor that was giving him tons of “campaign contributions.” Even worse, here is a story about a lobbying firm that arranges filibusters for cash.

Abuse And Consequences

The filibuster is being abused, and the Senate is broken. Important bills are blocked: 420 bills that had passed the House were not voted on in the Senate. The judges and executive appointees we need are not able to be confirmed. The country’s problems are not being addressed.

This is more than just abuse; it is damaging the country and the world’s understanding of democracy itself. Columnist Thomas Friedman has been warning that the abuse of the filibuster is causing the world to believe that China’s autocratic system is a more effective form of government than our own. In “Our One-Party Democracy,” Friedman wrote,

The fact is, on both the energy/climate legislation and health care legislation, only the Democrats are really playing. With a few notable exceptions, the Republican Party is standing, arms folded and saying “no.” Many of them just want President Obama to fail. Such a waste.

And in a column titled, Never Heard That Before, he writes about whisperings heard at the Davos conference of world leaders,

This year, Asians and Europeans, in particular, pull you aside and ask you some version of: “Tell me, what’s going on in your country?” We’re making people nervous. . . . “Our two-party political system is broken just when everything needs major repair, not minor repair,” said K.R. Sridhar, the founder of Bloom Energy, a fuel cell company in Silicon Valley, who is attending the forum. “I am talking about health care, infrastructure, education, energy. We are the ones who need a Marshall Plan now.”

Indeed, speaking of phrases I’ve never heard here before, another goes like this: “Is the ‘Beijing Consensus’ replacing the ‘Washington Consensus?’ ”

Please read that whole column to see the damage to our country this obstructionism is bringing in the world’s eyes. It is causing the world to view democracy as an inferior system.

Democracy Thwarted

It’s not just the filibuster itself that’s abused; so is the public’s understanding of it. The public understands what a filibuster is and when it should and should not be used. But they think a filibuster is senators talking, not sitting in a restaurant and placing an anonymous “hold.”

The problem is that the public does not even know that the filibuster is being used. The public is not getting the information it needs to make decisions, and to apply political pressure where it should be applied. All they hear is that the Senate can’t pass things. How many times have you read that “Senate rules require 60 votes to pass a bill?” This is now the accepted “conventional wisdom” assumption. But, in fact, Senate rules require a simple majority to pass a bill, not 60 votes.

Last year, in “Harry, Roll Out The Cots! Again And Again And Again!” I wrote,

You are not drawing a clear contrast and repeating it. You are not telling a simple story in a clear, understandable way. It is not getting through to the public that the hated filibuster is being used over and over. You need to put on a show that breaks through the haze and informs the public. There is a way to do that: roll out the cots! The public gets that. They associate cots with filibusters. It is theater but the public needs to have the information and without the theater – yes, the circus – of rolling out the cots again and again and again, the public is, in effect, having that information withheld from them.

Ever since the movie, “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” the public has believed that a filibuster is about senators staying up all night, talking. If that is what they believe, then that is what you have to give them. You have a responsibility to democracy to find ways to break through the media filter and help the public to understand what is really going on. You need to roll out the cots, and do it again and again, until the point is made with the public that what is going on is not the normal operation of the Senate, but instead is pure obstruction, used as a strategy to prevent the public from getting what they need, to demoralize them and keep them from voting.

After a while the public will get it. You owe it to them to do this. Roll out the cots.

Fix the filibuster. Fix the Senate. Stop the anonymous holds. Stop the silent filibuster. If they want to block a bill, make them block it, make them talk all night! Roll out the cots!

Cots.

filibuster_xl

Cots.

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