Thursday, December 23, 2010

End the Filibuster Next January!

Yesterday, every returning Democrat in the U. S. Senate signed a letter calling for changes in Senate rules to limit filibusters and holds. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Carl Levin of Michigan are talking about making Senators actually recruit 40 votes to begin a filibuster and then staying on the floor to maintain a filibuster. Under current Senate rules, someone can anonymously file an objection to a vote and force a 30 hour delay.

The Democrats are also talking about forcing Senators to make holds on legislation public. Right now, holds are anonymous. That way, anybody who is single-handedly obstructing appointments or legislation would be publicly accountable.

I've got a better idea.

Get rid of filibusters altogether. Eliminate holds. It's the only way to make the federal government functional again.

Under Mitch McConnell's leadership, the strategy of Senate Republicans has been to use the most expansive interpretation of Senate rules concerning calling up legislation, filibustering, and holds to slow walk and obstruct every significant piece of legislation. McConnell's goal has been to make Democratic Party control over the White House and Congress so painful that the country will vote Republican just to escape the torment.

It's important to emphasize that McConnell and the Republican leadership didn't want to negotiate, didn't want to compromise, and didn't want any kind of horse-trading. The GOP has been responding to every defeat by becoming even more aggressive ever since the 1992 election that put Bill Clinton into office. Newt Gingich made his reputation by aggressively attacking Clinton over the gays in the military even before Clinton made office and the attacks continued right through the Republican Revolution of 1994. When Bill Clinton won re-election in 1996k, the GOP responded with impeachment charges. This time, McConnell and other senior Republicans viewed intransigence as a matter of survival. Barack Obama posed a particular kind of threat to them. By heavily emphasizing bi-partisanship as he took office, Obama, perhaps unintentionally, defined any kind of Republican cooperation and compromise as a win for the Obama administration. For Mitch McConnell, Dick Armey, John McCain, and a lot of other Republicans, cooperation with the Obama administration meant extinction and irrelevance. It was intransigence or death.

And it worked.

Until this week, Senate Republicans under McConnell's leadership have filibustered almost all legislation, slow walked almost all appointments, and generally made governance as frustrating and painful as possible. To further the overall party goal of frustrating Democratic Party governance, many Republican Senators have voted to oppose bills they personally supported, filibustered bills that incorporated many of their ideas, and even worked to block legislation they had intially sponsored.

And it worked.

Even though they got most of their major initiatives passed, the Democrats looked weak, ineffectual, and perpetually exhausted right up until last week and that's a major reason why the Republicans did so well in the 2010 mid-term elections.

If the Democrats want to make the federal government functional once again, they'll have to eliminate the means by which Mitch McConnell and the Republican Senate leadership have kept them tied up over the last two years.

That means getting rid of filibusters and holds.

Instead of fiddling around the margins of the filibuster privilege, the Democrats should go for a simple, clean set of fixes. Right now, one Senator can block legislation from coming up for debate by filing a "hold" on the legislation. The Senate Democrats should eliminate that privilege altogether.

Second, minority filibusters can peventing legislation from coming up for debate at all. The Senate Democrats should eliminate that privilege as well and create a rule saying that it is a leadership prerogative to bring bills up for debate.

Finally, current rules require an extraordinary majority of 60 to end debate on a bill. The Dems should change the rules so that a simple majority of 51 Senators is required to end debate.

The effect of these kinds of changes would be to further the common good and bi-partisanship by forcing the Republican minority to negotiate with the Democratic majority if they want to have an impact on legislation.

The main objection to these kinds of far-reaching changes in Senate rules is that the Republicans would use those changes to their advantage to eliminate social security, medicare, environmental mandates, the public school systems and other things they don't like about American society.

My reply: let them.

If the Republicans want to overturn American government as we know it and are able to win majorities in future elections, they should have a right to enact their ideas into policy.

Given the disastrous outcomes likely from Republican policies, they'll probably get the extinction they richly deserve as a result.

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