Remember the guy pictured below? I’m sure you do; Senator Bernie Sanders (Independent Vermont), after all, was the one that did the 8+ hour filibuster of the tax cut deal a few weeks ago. Whether you agree or disagree with his position, you have to admit that there was something great about his effort; his “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” -style filibuster was the way it should be done in the Senate.
Rather than these anonymous holds, Senators should be forced to defend their filibuster by actually making an effort to maintain it. Fortunately, the abuse of the filibuster this past Congress has led to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D Nevada) and other members of the Democratic Caucus to work to try and change it. If it’s going to happen, it’ll happen later this week when the new Congress is sworn in, but as good as the proposed reforms are, it might be a bit of a double-edged sword…
The Proposal is Good, but Is It Too Good?
In addition to making Senators actually get up and speak in order to do a filibuster, there are several other provisions of the most prominent proposal from Senator Jeff Merkley (D Oregon), Tom Udall (D New Mexico), and others. Not only do they want Senators to stand up and talk, they want to make it bloody hard to keep it going for very long; the speeches would have to be televised, and progressively larger groups of Senators will have to make those speeches.
The proposal puts it as 5 more Senators each day of the filibuster; that would get unwieldy very quickly. Heck, I’m not sure I could even count the number of filibusters over the last two years that would last beyond the first day under this proposal; nearly all of them were supported, yes, by many Republicans, but only one or two were actually listed as being the ones preventing legislation from moving forward.
Perhaps more importantly, though, is an effort to limit when the filibusters can actually be used. Many of the filibusters over the past Congress were not delaying the final vote on the bill, though there were plenty of those. Instead, they were blocking the beginning of debate on a bill. This proposal would eliminate that; instead assuaging Republicans’ qualms about amendments by offering a fixed number of amendments on each side and time to debate them all. That is a great way to break the catch-22 that caused so many filibusters according to the Times editorial linked above; the GOP had complained that they weren’t being allowed to offer amendments to anything, and so they filibustered instead. We’ve all seen that happen.
Of course, these are all well and good for the Democrats now, but what about when they find themselves in the minority in 2012 or beyond. It’s a fact of life that at some point, sooner or later, they will be in the minority in the Senate. What then? After reducing the potency of the filibuster in 2011, their reforms have the capability to come back and bite them in later Congresses. In fact, the GOP effectively stopped themselves from reforming the filibuster during the Bush administration because of this very reason. In fact, we can see now that the GOP made effective use of the filibuster that they wanted to weaken just a few years ago; imagine how it would have been these past two years if they had weakened it. The Senate is, after all, supposed to be where legislation is toned down and made into something that isn’t quite so radical; “the world’s greatest deliberative body”, it is often called. Compromise is supposed to be the rule in the Senate, and a proper filibuster guarantees that. The filibuster needs to be reformed, but how can it, in this era of hyper-partisanship.
A Path to Passage
The Senate Democrats are hoping to use a little technicality in the Senate rules. Normally, changing the rules requires 67 votes; such a partisan thing as reducing the effectiveness of the filibuster has no chance of receiving that many votes. Thing is, the Constitution allows the House and the Senate to set whatever rules they want at the beginning of each session; since it’s higher than any Senate rule, the Constitution allows changes to be made with 51 votes- and there are 53 Democrats in the Senate. If Vice President Biden (who acts as the Senate President under the Constitution)approves the idea of using the Constitution’s rules to shape the Senate’s, we could very well have reformed the filibuster by this time next week.
Of course, there’s a question of whether they’ll have enough votes to pass it even under the Constitution option. In that case, apparently, the Democrats are considering doing another procedural trick to buy time. Their idea is to, get this, recess until the end of January in hopes of finalizing support for the reforms. Really, Senate Dems? Really? How would this even work? Just debate the damn thing already! Seriously, let the chips fall the way they will and get it over with. You take too many vacations as it is; you don’t need a longer winter one than me and the vast majority of students in the country!