One of the biggest failings of the mainstream press over the past few years has been its lack of clear and continual reporting on Republican obstructionism in Congress, particularly how Republicans in the Senate have used the filibuster to obstruct Democratic—and democratic—governance.
I would guess that most regular folks, even people who are routine consumers of news but maybe not political junkies, don’t really understand how the modern filibuster—which traditionally meant talking a bill to death—works and don’t understand why it is that in a body of 100 members, in a Democratic society, that it takes 60 votes to get any real business done.
And that lack of understanding of how the U.S. Senate works is partially the fault of the press, which tires rather quickly of reminding folks of such technical matters, even though those technical matters matter a lot, in terms of what has been happening in Washington.
Read this stunning paragraph from Ezra Klein:
Filibusters used to be relatively rare. There were more filibusters between 2009 and 2010 than there were in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s combined. A strategy memo written after the 1964 election by Mike Manatos, Lyndon B. Johnson’s Senate liaison, calculated that in the new Senate, Medicare would pass with 55 votes — the filibuster didn’t even figure into the administration’s planning.
Think about that. Medicare, a remarkably large social program, was not only not filibustered, it wasn’t even expected to be filibustered. Compare that to these days of Republican minority obstructionism, where even mundane matters—like whether a bill should even be debated—are subject to the filibuster, requiring the majority to invoke cloture and, if 60 votes can be rounded up, to end the filibuster and move on to the matter at hand.
As Klein says,
Today, the filibuster isn’t used to defend minority rights or ensure debate. Rather, the filibuster is simply a rule that the minority party uses to require a 60-vote supermajority to get anything done in the Senate. That’s not how it was meant to be.
There is serious talk among Democrats, including Majority Leader Harry Reid, of changing the rules regarding the filibuster. It turns out that on the first day of a new Congress, the next new one is scheduled to meet on January 3 of next year, there is a method available—now known as the “nuclear option” — for adopting rule changes in the Senate with only a simple majority vote—a filibuster wouldn’t work.
Now, obviously Democrats have to be careful here. They likely won’t always be in the majority in the Senate, and it would be foolish to set a precedent that would completely shut down the minority, much like the minority in the House is made irrelevant by its rules.
To that end, Harry Reid, who should have acted before the opening of the last session of Congress in 2011, is proposing what he calls “a couple of minor changes” to make the Senate “more efficient.” Those changes include:
♦ eliminating the right to filibuster the debating of a bill, but not the right to filibuster the final passage of the bill itself
♦ forcing filibustering Senators to actually stand on the Senate floor and conduct the filibuster, as opposed to merely invoking a filibuster from their offices
Those sound like sensible changes, some would even say too sensible, since the filibuster would still exist and 60 votes would still be needed to pass legislation, given what mood Republicans have been in since the Dawn of Obama.
So, how did the leader of the obstructionists, the man whose one self-admitted priority four years ago was denying Barack Obama a second term, how did that guy, Mitch McConnell, react? Come on, you know how. He got pissed. He called it a “temporary exercise of raw partisan political power,” and a “naked power grab.”
Other Republicans were equally outraged. Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, no stranger to overstatement, threatened something, but I’m not sure what:
I think the backlash will be severe. If you take away minority rights, which is what you’re doing because you’re an ineffective leader, you’ll destroy the place. And if you destroy the place, we’ll do what we have to do to fight back.
“Do what we have to do to fight back” ? Huh? Is he going to blow up the place? Because if he’s not going to wedge a grenade down Harry Reid’s trousers, what else is available? Obstruction? That’s what Republicans have been doing.
As Reid said of such threats,
What more could they do to us?
What more, indeed.
For his part, Ezra Klein says that Reid’s minor reform effort “doesn’t go nearly far enough.” He writes:
The problem with the filibuster isn’t that senators don’t have to stand and talk, or that they can filibuster the motion to debate as well as the vote itself. It’s that the Senate has become, with no discussion or debate, an effective 60-vote institution. If you don’t change that, you haven’t solved the problem.
Defenses of the filibuster tend to invoke minority rights or the Constitution’s preference for decentralized power. It’s true the Founding Fathers wanted to make legislating hard. That’s why they divided power among three branches. It’s why senators used to be directly appointed by state legislatures. It’s why the House, the Senate and the president have staggered elections, so it usually takes a big win in two or more consecutive elections for a party to secure control of all three branches.
But the Founders didn’t want it to be this hard. They considered requiring a supermajority to pass legislation and rejected the idea. “Its real operation,” Alexander Hamilton wrote of such a requirement, “is to embarrass the administration, to destroy the energy of government and to substitute the pleasure, caprice or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent or corrupt junta, to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority.” Sound familiar?
Of course that sounds familiar. We have been living with Hamilton’s description ever since Mitch McConnell declared war on President Obama. And it is McConnell who has led his “corrupt junta” into unprecedented abuse of an important Senate rule, a rule that must be used judiciously or else it becomes, in Ezra Klein’s words, “a noxious obstacle” :
Filibusters are no longer used to allow minorities to be heard. They’re used to make the majority fail. In the process, they undermine democratic accountability, because voters are left to judge the rule of a majority party based on the undesirable outcomes created by a filibustering minority.
Yes, voters are left to judge. But they need critical information to properly judge. And that critical information comes largely from the press, which did not do a good job of explaining how dogged Republicans were in their pursuit of those “undesirable outcomes” that Klein referenced.
But despite that, despite the trembling economic recovery, despite an entire cable news channel and almost all of talk radio against them, Democrats were able to largely prevail in November.
And making a couple of modest changes to the filibuster rule in the Senate may just make governing a little easier. If it doesn’t, if Republicans dig in their obstructionist heels even deeper, then at least the American people will be able to see them, day after obstructionist day, standing on the Senate floor holding up progress.
And that in itself would be progress.