Among other priorities in his State of the Union address, President Obama vowed to change the way Washington works.
Here’s one good place to start: get rid of the filibuster. It’s undemocratic, and it invites gross, mindless partisanship – especially the way it’s employed by today’s Senate Republicans to block any legislation or nomination coming out of the White House. As Obama admonished them in the State of the Union, “Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership.”
Until recent years, the filibuster was the exception, not the rule, designed to allow any senator to stop a vote on pending legislation by debating it as long as he wanted. There were only two conditions. The objecting senator had to continue speaking from the podium, without interruption, for the duration of the filibuster – or until 67 senators rose up to stop it: a move called “cloture.” And the Senate could conduct no other business while the filibuster was under way.
That led to colorful moments in history. In 1953, Oregon’s longwinded Wayne Morse filibustered Tidelands Oil legislation for 22 hours and 26 minutes. But four years later, Strom Thurmond, then still a Democrat from South Carolina, set a new record, which stands to this day, arguing against the Civil Rights Act for 24 hours and 18 minutes – until, presumably, his bladder gave out.
New rules made the filibuster easier to use, but more open to abuse. In the ’60s, Sen. Robert Byrd introduced what might be called a “stealth filibuster,” allowing the Senate to conduct other business while the bill subject to a filibuster was placed on hold, thereby freeing senators from the challenge of speaking 24 hours nonstop. Accordingly, Joe Lieberman didn’t have to do anything, not even speak for five minutes, to kill expansion of Medicare in health care reform legislation. He just had to “threaten” to filibuster it.
And in 1975, the Senate voted to lower the required number of votes needed to end a filibuster from 67 to 60. Ever since then, use of the filibuster has steadily grown: from an average once a year in the ’50s, to more than 55 a year in the ’90s. In 2007, the Republican minority invoked the filibuster 112 times, double the number called by Democrats when they were in the minority. In 2008, Republicans upped its use to 139 times.
But even that wasn’t enough. Today Republicans demand a filibuster, or “super-majority” on every single Senate vote. In December, they at first filibustered the extension of unemployment benefits, even though the legislation eventually passed the Senate 98-0. They also placed a filibuster on the Defense Appropriations Bill providing money for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. In their abuse of the filibuster, Republicans are able to prevent the Senate from acting on major legislation and, at the same time, undermine democracy by negating the results of popular elections.
What we have in the Senate today is nothing less than minority rule, where 41 votes outnumber 59. And here’s the worst part: spineless Democrats have just rolled over and let Republicans get away with it. Imagine what would happen if Republicans were in the majority and Democrats tried the same thing.
Actually, we know what would happen because we saw it before. In 2005, when Democrats in the minority attempted to filibuster certain judicial nominations of President George W. Bush, Republicans led by Majority Leader Bill Frist threatened to employ a “nuclear option.” Their plan was for Vice-President Dick Cheney, as president of the Senate, to rule that use of the filibuster was unconstitutional because it violated the principle of majority rule.
Democrats may not have to go to that extreme. Sen. Tom Harkin has recently resurrected a proposal he first introduced in 1995 to lessen abuse of the filibuster. After two days, according to his plan, the 60 votes required to invoke cloture would be reduced to 57, two days later, to 54. And so on. The problem is that changing any Senate rule itself still requires 67 votes and Republicans could easily block it.
So, in the end, it’s Joe Biden to the rescue. Democrats have no choice but to drop the nuclear option themselves. Kill the filibuster. Health care, climate change, and Wall Street reforms are too important to leave at the mercy of a minority of obstructionist, undemocratic, crybaby Republicans.