January 30, 2013

Filibuster Fail

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Despite all good logic and reason, the filibuster continues its miserable existence.

For the past three years, ever since the Senate democrats lost their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, the upper chamber of America’s federal government has been the place where President Obama’s agenda objectives go to die.

Whether it’s legislation meant to deal with global warming, tougher financial regulation reform, immigration reform  or the nominations of several key figures in the executive branch – including National Labor Relations Board members and the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau – the Senate has acted as a major roadblock to President Obama’s domestic agenda.

The main culprit for this Congressional congestion is the filibuster, which is essentially a set of Senate rules that require 60 votes to approve almost anything. Essentially, filibustering means continuing the debate on a bill, so that a vote cannot happen.

There is nothing in the Constitution about the filibuster, and the rules governing its use have been changed several times by the Senate. Most people think of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and its famous filibuster depiction, where an idealistic young senator (played supremely by James Stewart) embodies the best of America by holding the floor of the senate for 24 straight hours and preventing a vote on a graft-ridden appropriations bill.

The filibuster as it exists now, is not a friend of democratic idealism, but rather a tool by which a minority of senators can put a stop to anything it wants. Worse still, they do not even need to hold up time by speaking. Filibustering senators need only make it clear that they intend to hold the legislation up.

In 2010, some senators came out publicly in favor of modifying the filibuster. Their case was that the increased usage of the filibuster (which had skyrocketed during the first few years of President Obama’s term) was preventing the Senate from passing the bills voters elected them to pass. They argued that if it takes a 20-seat majority to pass anything, which only comes around once in a generation, elections will cease to yield political consequences.

If elections do not have consequences, then we can forget about this whole “democracy” thing we’ve been trying to make work.

The reformist senators also believed that when a senator filibusters, he/she ought to hold the floor and keep talking.

Furthermore, they argued that it just makes intuitive sense that it should only take a simple majority to pass legislation.

Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the Senate came out against filibuster reform in 2010. After witnessing two more years of Republican obstructionism, spoke out strongly in favor of dramatically reforming the filibuster.

In the end, however, Reid decided against pushing for any meaningful reforms.

There were a few basic reforms agreed upon last week, but they were baby steps at best. Instead of requiring filibustering senators to actually stand in opposition to the bill on the floor of the Senate, the measures agreed to by Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are designed to move the senatorial process along at a slightly quicker pace.

This does nothing to address the fundamental issue that right now it takes a 20 vote majority to pass anything in the Senate.

As a result of Reid’s failure, Senators like Iowa’s Tom Harkin have declared that President Obama ought to give up any hope of pushing an agenda this term and “might as well take a four-year vacation.”

Those Americans who were excited about the legislative prospects of President Obama’s second term ought to be sorely disappointed.

Original Author: Noah Karr-Kaitin