Congressional Game of Chicken: Fixing Filibuster, Part II

(2 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Cross posted from The Stars Hollow Gazette

Jon Walker at FDL Action was pretty miffed at this editorial in the Los Angeles Times regarding filibuster reform, especially this really stupid paragraph:

One response would be to eliminate the filibuster altogether. As a Senate rule, it can be changed by the majority party, and Democrats could eliminate it (though, of course, Republicans would almost certainly filibuster such a move). That, however, would also do away with the filibuster’s legitimate and historic place. Rather than eliminating the rule, the better approach would be to amend it in such a way as to preserve the ability for minorities to fight against one-party steamrolling while scaling back the filibuster’s capacity for obstructing everything.

Yikes! This is not only stupid, as Jon said, but it is wrong about how the Senate rules can be changed. Rules changes can’t be filibustered. While making such a rule change in the Senate would normally require a 67-vote majority, but when the Senate comes back into session in January, Democrats could use a set of procedural rules often called the “nuclear option” and pass the changes with a simple 51-vote majority. That scares the pants off the Republicans and had Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blustering and making:

The Kentucky Republican said changing the filibuster – which was designed to protect the minority but has become a tool for constant gridlock in the modern Senate – would fundamentally alter how the Senate operates.

McConnell accused Democrats of trying to employ a “naked power grab.”

“In the name of efficiency, their plan is to use a heavy-handed tactic that would poison party relations even more,” McConnell said in a lengthy floor speech Monday. “In the name of efficiency, they would prevent the very possibility of compromise and threaten to make the disputes of the past few years look like mere pillow fights.”

Sen. McConnell was exaggerating since no one, not even Majority Leader Harry Reid, who said he “favors” filibuster, has suggested eliminating it entirely. But who would expect anything less than hyperbole from a man whose party has set a record for filibusters with over 360 since the Democrats came into the majority. But not to be outdone by their fearless leader other Republican senators voiced their objections in strongly worded terms:

Republicans are threatening even greater retaliation if Reid uses a move rarely used by Senate majorities: changing the chamber’s precedent by 51 votes, rather than the usual 67 votes it takes to overhaul the rules.

“I think the backlash will be severe,” Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the conservative firebrand, said sternly. “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.”

“It will shut down the Senate,” the incoming Senate GOP whip, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, told POLITICO. “It’s such an abuse of power.”

I’m not exactly sure how they would accomplish a “shut down” if the tool they’ve been using to shut down the senate is taken away from them or changed so that they can no longer obstruct the business that the majority was elected to do. After all for six years the Republicans, with Dick Cheney George W. Bush in the Oval Office, used the threat of the “nuclear option” to end any Democratic attempt at filibuster. Now the shoe is on the other foot and suddenly ending filibuster will destroy democracy.

We’ve been down this road before:

With the obstruction of a very united minority, there has been a great deal of debate about the filibuster and the reform of Senate Rule 22. In a New York Times op-ed, Former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, recalls how in 1975 when he was a Senator, the Senate voted to reduce the number of votes required to end filibuster from 67 votes, a super majority, to the current 60 votes. Clearly, he states this was not enough. Filibuster threats and cloture votes blocked legislation nearly 100 times in the 111th Congress.

Mr. Mondale argues that essentially, these rules abrogate the Constitution which only requires a 67 vote majority for the approval of treaties, “in all other instances it must be assumed that the Constitution requires only a majority vote”. In other words, many of the Senate rules are unconstitutional and could be done away with on a simple majority procedural vote under Parliamentary rules. That was the “[nuclear option ” that was used as a threat by the Republicans to force the Democrats to capitulate when they were in the minority.

One more time from me:

I have said this a number of times, the filibuster as it is currently being used to obstruct the Senate is unconstitutional. The Constitution is the supreme law of the land and cannot be abrogated by the Senate merely making a rule. The Vice President presides over the Senate and has a duty to make rulings on order and procedure when the Senate is in session. The Constitution provides for “one-person-one-vote” and “majority rules”, there is no mention of “filibuster”.

It is amazingly simple:

  1. During debate, a Republican Senator engages in a standard obstruction tactic, such as a hold, actual filibuster, or proposing numerous, non-germane Amendments.

  2. The Vice President, as Presiding Officer, rules that Senator’s hold, filibuster or spurious amendments out of order.

  3. The Senator who holds the floor, and had attempted the hold (filibuster, or amendments), could then appeal the decision of the Presiding Officer to the Senate as a whole.

  4. A simple majority (51) can then vote to uphold the ruling of the Presiding Officer that the hold (filibuster or amendments) were out of order.


This mechanism is not without precedent:

In 1975 the filibuster issue was revived by post-Watergate Democrats frustrated in their efforts to enact popular reform legislation like campaign finance laws. Senator James Allen of Alabama, the most conservative Democrat in the Senate and a skillful parliamentary player, blocked them with a series of filibusters. Liberals were fed up with his delaying tactics. Senator Walter Mondale pushed a campaign to reduce the threshold from sixty-seven votes to a simple majority of fifty-one. In a parliamentary sleight of hand, the liberals broke Allen’s filibuster by a majority vote, thus evading the sixty-seven-vote rule. (Senate rules say you can’t change the rules without a cloture vote, but the Constitution says the Senate sets its own rules. As a practical matter, that means the majority can prevail whenever it decides to force the issue.) In 1975 the presiding officer during the debate, Vice President Rockefeller, first ruled with the liberals on a motion to declare Senator Allen out of order. When Allen appealed the “ruling of the chair” to the full Senate, the majority voted him down. Nervous Senate leaders, aware they were losing the precedent, offered a compromise. Henceforth, the cloture rule would require only sixty votes to stop a filibuster.

And what Jon said:

There is no legitimate reason for allowing the minority, the party which lost the recent election, to have a veto in the Senate. The founders never intended a Senate minority to have such awesome power over basic legislation. The Constitutions clear stated the few  very important issues that should require a super majority in the chamber, everything else was intended to be a simple majority vote.

The idea that without a filibuster a majority in the Senate is going to steamroll are system is laughable. A senate majority is already checked and balanced by the House, the President and the judiciary. If a party does manage to dominates multiple elections allowing them to full control, they should be able to enact the agenda they run on. That is how democracy are suppose to work.

The US Senate has always been the slow deliberative body, it was not the intent of the Founders that it become bogged down to a halt by the minority misusing a rule that is probably not even constitutional in the first place. Sen. Reid was far too trusting of the duplicitous Republican leadership at the start of the 112th congress when he accepted their “gentlemen’s agreement”, shutting down the reform proposed by Sens. Tom Udall (D-NM) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR). The Republicans are not to be trusted.

I’m with Jon. It’s time the Senate ended the obstruction and put an end to Rule 22 altogether. Neither the Senate or the world will end and our elected officials will get back to governing.

1 comment

  1. TMC

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