Saturday, January 22, 2011

Kill the Filibuster. Kill the Whole Thing. Kill It Dead. Do It Now

Forget all the too-clever ideas for "reforming" the filibuster when the Senate convenes on Monday. Any "reform" that leaves intact the ability of the minority to prevent majority rule is a victory for obstructionism and a defeat for progress.

In other words: Reform = rethuglican victory.

Liberal Democracy wins only after the filibuster is dead.

That's because the filibuster is fundamentally anti-progress.

Back in August, Thomas Geoghegan in The Nation explained:

Sure, sometimes liberal Democrats put the filibuster to good use when Republicans are in power. Sure, sometimes a liberal senator can use the filibuster to stop a piece of corporate piracy. It's impossible to prove that the filibuster never does any good. But the record is awfully thin. Look at all the financial deregulation that Senator Phil Gramm and leading Democrats like Larry Summers pushed through only a decade ago. The filibuster did not stop their effective repeal of the New Deal, but it would block the revival of it today.

On the other hand, Republicans and conservative Democrats use their filibusters on labor, health, the stimulus, everything. They can and will block all the change that Obama wanted us to believe in. And even when they lose, they win. For example, when we say that after a major rewriting of the stimulus package--a rewriting that seriously weakened the original bill--it "survived the filibuster," what we really mean is that it didn't.


Nor will any "liberal hour" come in our time, until we bring the filibuster down. I know it seems hopeless. But so did knocking out slavery when the abolitionists first started, or segregation, when civil rights activists began their struggle against Jim Crow. It's a fair enough analogy, since the filibuster is one of the last remnants of racist politics in America: it was a parliamentary tactic used by the Calhounians to make extra certain slavery would stay around.

We should adopt the strategy of the antislavery movement, which in the early stages had three approaches:

1. The laying of petitions on the House. Forgive the archaic legal phrase: I mean petitions to Congress, both houses. In the era of John Quincy Adams - in case you missed the Steven Spielberg movie - there would be mass petitions, with Adams and others reading them on the House floor to the howls of the Southerners. Every group busted by a filibuster should lay on a petition. And start with the House, which is the only place it has a chance of being read.

2. Resolutions by the House, as a warm-up for the Senate. Such resolutions might read: "Resolved, that Congress has no authority to require supermajorities in any chamber except as authorized by the Constitution." Aren't House chairs tired of seeing their bills cast into black holes by senators whose names they never even know?

3. Evangelizing. The most effective tactic in the fight against slavery was the preaching of New England clergy against it. We can start in our battle against the filibuster by enlisting faculty at New England colleges to hold teach-ins. Teach the kids why "Yes, we can" can't happen with the current Senate rules.

By the way, the abolitionists knew the Senate was their enemy, just as it is our enemy today. Let's hope these tactics work for us in getting rid of this last vestige of slavery: Senate Rule 22. What's painful is that we have to cross some of our most sainted senators. But unless we decide to just give up on the Republic, there's no way out. To save the Obama presidency, we may have to fight our heroes.

On why mere reforms are not just pointless but damaging, first we have two views on reform's "weak tea":

Steve Benen:

I tend to see the proposals as worthwhile, but if we're being intellectually serious about this, the reforms are pretty tepid. The changes -- ending filibusters on motions to proceed, eliminating secret holds, etc. -- would make the chamber function more effectively, but only at the margins. I like the plan, but I also think it's a mistake to consider it a sweeping overhaul. It isn't.

So why support it? Partly because some improvements are better than none, but also because I see some value in getting the ball rolling a bit. Major institutional reforms rarely happen all at once, and the Senate is more resistant to change than most. The point would be to use Udall/Merkley as a stepping stone -- minor changes now that could help clear the way for more systemic changes later.

And Kevin Drum:

Finally, there's #5: require honest to goodness Jimmy-Stewart-talk-til-you-drop debate if you want to filibuster a bill. It's not clear just how this would work technically, but in any case it's not really much of an impediment to filibusters.

If you have 40 senators willing to join in, each one just reads the phone book for an hour or two and then yields. That's about one hour of phone book reading per week per senator, which is hardly onerous. In fact, it's so obviously non-onerous that I imagine it changes nothing in practice. Once the minority starts up and demonstrates that it's willing to engage in a talkathon, the majority will give up and move to other business. Before long, this will morph into the same convention we have now: simply announce that you're willing to talk and the majority takes you at your word.

Overall, then, this is a pretty weak reform package. Items #3 and #4 are worthwhile, but the others are mostly window dressing. The Senate will remain a 60-vote body, but if you can scrounge up those 60 votes then things will move along a bit faster than before. That's about it.

But it's worse than that. Yet again, dems are handing repugs a monster victory while getting nothing for themselves.


In a bid to attract Republican support for filibuster reform, Democrats led by Sens. Tom Udall (D-NM) and Jeff Merkley have proposed a new rule that would guarantee the minority party the chance to offer three amendments to any legislation.

It may have worked too well. A senior Senate Republican leadership aide says GOP members would be "giddy" if they were given that right.

Here's why. Those amendments would be filibuster-proof -- among the only pieces of legislation in all the Senate to enjoy that privilege -- and would therefore be a recipe for poison pill amendments on both sides.

For Republicans, now in the minority, that would mean a chance to get up or down votes on repealing health care and other conservative priorities.

Remember the One Rule for Dealing With Rethuglicans: If Rethuglicans Like It, It's Got to Be Bad.

Finally, John Nichols on what's really at stake:

The signals from leaders of groups associated with the Fix the Senate Now movement are encouraging. "The filibuster has proven to be one of the most potent legislative tactics ever used to deny Americans their basic civil and human rights," argues Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. "Once used to perpetuate lynchings across the South and disenfranchise African-Americans, it is now being used to obstruct pay equity for women, human rights for immigrants and the basic rights of LGBT individuals. The civil rights movement, which first coalesced around filibuster reform, believes additional reforms are necessary to move our country forward."

Henderson's message is the right one. This is not just about parliamentary procedure. This is about the impact that abuses of the filibuster do to real people.

It is echoed by Communications Workers of America (CWA) President Larry Cohen, who notes: "No other democracy has a legislative body that depends on unanimous consent like the U.S. Senate. In the last session more than 400 measures passed by the House were never debated by a Senate ruled by gridlock and obstructionism. Reform that would require Senators choosing to filibuster to actually hold the Senate floor and lay out their arguments in full public view will strengthen our democracy and enable the Senate to meet the challenges of our time. If the Senate rules aren’t changed, we all lose."

Kill the filibuster. Kill the whole thing. Kill it Dead. Do it now.

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