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Let's End the Filibuster Let's End the Filibuster

Let's End the Filibuster

by Brian Beutler
November 26, 2009

Endless debate is destroying American democracy

In 1994, a first-term Connecticut Democrat offered slow-moving Washington a bold and prescient diagnosis. "I think the filibuster has become not only in reality an obstacle to accomplishment here," this senator said, "but it is also a symbol of a lot that ails Washington today."Things change. Looking back, the early 1990s problem of obstruction by filibuster seems trivial. When the Democrats retook Congress after decades out of power, Joe Lieberman had become an independent. Over the next two years, the cancer he identified 15 years earlier would metastasize. The incidence of the filibuster more than tripled. And this year, in one of the most consequential about-faces in the history of politics, Lieberman embraced the tool he once abhorred, threatening to single-handedly derail his old party's health care reform proposal...by joining a filibuster.The Senate distorts democracy in a number of subtle and creative ways, but the filibuster is perhaps the most obvious and inelegant. The filibuster isn't written into the U.S. Constitution. It's an outgrowth of a Senate tradition holding that the upper chamber has the right to unlimited debate (there's no filibuster in the House). Decades ago, the Senate functioned, to the extent that it did, because, like the gentleman's club it aspires to be, it was governed by a culture of unanimous consent. Most of the time, senators wouldn't object to normal proceedings, and the business of the Senate could continue. But of course, a single objection from a single senator, and things could drag on indefinitely.When it became clear that unlimited debate had the potential to turn American democracy into a cruel and dangerous farce, the Senate adopted a rule (cloture) to allow a supermajority of members to force an end to debate. This sounds like a nice compromise, but in practice it turned out not to be. Cloture does nothing if a determined minority (like the modern Republican party) decides that obstruction is the way back to political power. They just stick together and, voila, the filibuster holds. At the same time, it takes the onus off the minority to actually debate. All they have to do is promise that a 41-member bloc will oppose an issue and that threat usually does the trick.So now there's a de facto 60-vote requirement to do pretty much anything of consequence in the Senate. Not just to advance flagship legislation like health care, but completely uncontroversial legislation, as well. Recently a bill to extend unemployment benefits took a month to pass during which it had to overcome three 60-vote hurdles. It ultimately passed 98-0.As a sign of just how much things have changed since Lieberman's first stand, in 1994 the Clinton health care bill was brought to the floor of the U.S. Senate for debate by unanimous consent. This past weekend, Democrats needed 60 votes to do the same. Even the idea that the majority party should be able to debate a bill can be debated to death.Ending the filibuster isn't simply a matter of near-term partisan advantage. The current rules of the Senate have created a legitimacy crisis at the heart of our political system. Elected governments, both Republican and Democrat, can't enact their agendas. As a direct result, elections have become perverse circus shows. Candidates and parties aren't rewarded for creating effective policy solutions. Parties are punished by the sickened masses for failing to improve things, and candidates are free to make whatever outlandish promises they wish, knowing they'll never stand a chance of becoming law.There are excellent ideas for ending a filibuster that aren't remotely partisan. The "cloture number" could be scaled down by a couple votes every Congress for several years until the Senate operated by majority rule (or, as they call it in democracies, "democracy"). Alternatively, debate in the Senate could be designed in such a way that the minority is guaranteed nearly a month to introduce and vote on its amendments, without abusing the rules for the purposes of naked obstruction. On any motion, the threshold for ending debate could start at 60, then drop to 57, then 54, then, finally to 51-a bare majority. If you think that's creative, you can thank its godfather, Joe Lieberman.Unfortunately, the vast majority of Senators are so in the thrall of their own power that they're blinded to the harm the filibuster causes. Short of a natural disaster-or a charismatic figurehead leading a mass movement-the prospects for reform appear bleak.Right now Democrats have a 60-member majority, and, with it in theory, enough votes to end all filibusters. That they still struggle to advance their agenda apace is an indictment of the party itself. But in 2011, or 2013, when its majority has dwindled, Democrats will have lost even the power to stumble around with a health care bill for months. All hope for further reforms will dim, and the country will continue to eat itself alive. The right time to address this procedural crisis has long since passed. But better late than never.
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