I think I’ve written about the filibuster more than any other subject in American politics now. Here’s to more whining!
Let’s tackle the exciting history of the filibuster. Until the 20th century, the filibuster was a rare tool used by politicians to delay a bills progress by forcing more debate to occur. A Senator needed to be speaking on the floor for the entire time, and when he collapsed of exhaustion, the filibuster ended. In 1917, Woodrow Wilson urged the Senate to adopt a motion to be used to close debate–cloture, requiring a two-thirds majority to end filibusters or debate. In 1975, the filibuster was changed to allow other business to come to the floor during a filibuster, which no longer required senators to speak while filibustering. As politics from 1975 onward became even more hyper partisan, the filibuster’s use continued to grow, and now it has culminated to the great obstructionist being it is today.
Little known is that the Senate is allowed to change any of its procedural rules by simple majority on the first day of a new session (every 2 years). The Democratic majority in the Senate was discussing eliminating the filibuster at the start of the 2013 session to move legislation from its turtle’s crawl pace, but he opted instead for a “verbal agreement” from senate minority leader Mitch McConnell that they would use the filibuster less indiscriminately and try to compromise more, in return for Republicans being allowed to offer more amendments on bills. Didn’t exactly work out that way.
I like Reid for the most part, and I get his thinking despite how seemingly backwards it is. Reid, like any good majority leader, was thinking of the possibility that a gerrymandered House and a Republican storming of the white house and senate would put the Democrats at the whim of their colleagues. The filibuster seems awful until your party is in the minority. He also knows that even if bills can once again pass by simple majority in the Senate, that they would be DOA in the Republican led house. So even though nothing substantial can pass the senate, it doesn’t take a genius to see his calculation.
But here’s my case that he should have gone ahead and nuked the filibuster or brought back the requirement for members to be speaking during the entire filibuster. Without the super majority requirement for debate, amendments or bill passage, the Democratic senate would quickly build up a list of passed bills, many supported by the general public. These bills would stall in the Republican led House and help dispel the illusion of two-party blame for political dysfunction at least in the senate, where bills passed are generally much more moderate than House versions of bills of either party, and particularly than those being passed by the Republicans in the past two sessions of the House (30+ votes to repeal the entire Affordable Healthcare Act). This would in turn put pressure on the speaker in the House, John Boehner, pressure he has not felt since earning the position in 2010. House Republicans would be flooded with media coverage, interest groups, and concerned citizens asking about all of these stalling bills and the Party overall would be suffering in polling from the negative attention. The honest answer is that Boehner probably wouldn’t mind bringing most of the bipartisan moderate legislation to the floor, but his problem is that with all the freshman tea party members in his caucus, he can’t rally up enough support to pass things even he wants too, and he wouldn’t be able to make enough changes in Democratic bills that would satisfy his and his caucuses desires in bills. The pressure might send shocks into the Republican rank and file, possibly to the point where the flow of moderate legislation could increase. If it wasn’t enough, then the public would at least know which chamber and which party was to blame for the dysfunction. Enough negative coverage explaining that the House is refusing to take up popular legislation because it’s body is too conservative would be bad news for future Republican electoral progress anywhere in the country.
And if Harry Reid or future majority leaders can’t muster the courage to strike down the filibuster outright, then the least they can do is require speakers on the floor during a filibuster. If the headlines everyday are about continuous filibusters by the Republicans or Democrats in the future, then the public will be more aware and congress will be more sensitive and responsive.
The Democrats could very well hold onto the Senate in 2014. Reid or whoever the next majority leader should use the simple majority procedure at the beginning of the session to cease some of the institutional obstructionism that has been halting the natural democratic process at unprecedented levels by the Republicans. Democrats need to be held to the same standard when they are out of power.