Friday, December 14, 2007

Bring Back the Real Filibuster

I have no doubt that some of my more politically savvy readers will tell me that I am crazy and/or foolish at the end of this post. Perhaps this is a bad idea, but I want to provoke a debate... so here goes:

In theory, it takes only 51 votes for a bill to pass the United States Senate.

However, Senate Rule 22 allows unlimited debate on any issue if one or more Senators are so inclined. And whereas it takes 51 votes to pass a bill, it takes 60 votes to end debate on a bill if Senators do not end it voluntarily. (This 60 vote process is called "cloture").

So without 60 votes of support, a Senator, or group of Senators can mount a filibuster - which literally means endlessly talking about a bill (or any other topic) until the speaker(s) yields or until the Senate Majority Leader gives up and withdraws it.

The U.S. Senate has seen some memorable filibusters in the past including a physically impressive but morally shameful 24 hour 18 minute effort from Senator Strom Thurmond to block Civil Rights legislation in 1957.

But the Senate has evolved in recent years and it is now no longer necessary to speak when filibustering a bill. All an individual Senator or party must do is declare their intention to filibuster. If the Senate Majority Leader cannot get 60 votes for cloture, he withdraws the bill.

On the one hand, I can see some value in this approach. By cutting right to the chase in counting cloture votes, the Majority Leader can save time and the collective face of the Senate.

On the other hand, one could argue (as I am about to) that this filibuster, now that it is painless, has been abused. In the 1960s, no Senate term had more than seven filibusters. In the first decade of the 21st century, no Senate term had fewer than 49 filibusters. In the fall of 2007, the 110th Congress' broke the record for filibuster cloture votes with more than 70.

The most recent use of this tactic was seen last week. Republican Senators filibustered an energy bill because it repealed subsidies for oil companies. The Republican Senators explained their action as "opposing a tax increase". The cloture vote failed, obtaining 59 of the 60 votes it needed to pass.

The Senate Majority Leader, bowing to the minority, decided to strip the measures in dispute and pass the first increase in automobile efficiency in 32 years. This is good progress, but more must be done and I am not convinced that all options have been exhausted.

The President had threatened to veto any attempt to deprive Exxon of the government funds it receives each year. Therefore, one could argue that the Majority Leader would be wasting time if he had less than the 66 votes he would need to override the veto.

I disagree. There is a time for collaboration and/or compromise and there is a time to fight for what is unambiguously right for the country.

I would encourage the Majority Leader to consider reintroducing the failed measures while reinstating the real filibuster at some point in 2008.

I seriously doubt that even the infinite debate allowed by the filibuster will be enough for Republicans to justify why the government is giving Exxon, the most profitable company in American history, your money.

Of course, this issue may be more complicated than it seems and I could be wrong. I invite the Senate Republicans to take all the time in the world to explain their position.

In my judgement their position was indefensible when oil was $30 a barrel. It is a disgusting and blatant display of pure political corruption at $90 a barrel.

If the Democrats cannot win this debate, which ones can they win? The truth is they are scared of being called tax raisers and accused of stimulating higher gas prices. Both of these claims are entirely bogus. At some point they owe it to the country to take the political risk of standing up and making the case for their position.

A glut of media attention surrounding a series of real filibusters, coupled with a capable (and courageous?) Democratic Presidential nominee might give them just the platform they need to do so...


Unknown said...

Insofar as we must have filibusters at all, I agree: make them actually do it. To be able to extinguish debate with a wave of the hand is heinously undemocratic.

Less immediately egregious but equally undemocratic is the idea of a filibuster at all. That a small group of people--only two, really, if they took turns every so many hours--can hijack the business of the Senate by whatever means is absurd. I know it's a tradition and all, but traditions that are stupid and harmful should be discarded.

Justin said...

I'm with you 100% Jared. I imagine that some of these 70 year old Senators would seriously reconsider filibustering if they had to stand in the Chambers at 3 in the morning finding something to talk about.

Jared said...

In an effort to remain fair on this blog I need to point out that it was not entirely the Republicans fault that the specific filibuster I mentioned in this article was upheld.

Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana voted against cloture - which failed by ONE vote.