It’s a teenager’s dream come true; the ability to talk endlessly prohibiting the parents from making a decision. In the Senate it’s called a filibuster. Unfortunately, instead of having to talk ad naseum to prevent a bill from being passed, the modern day filibuster is comprised of a variety obstructionist tactics designed to allow the vocal minority to bring legislation to a screaming halt. The ease and stealth of which a Senator can stall important legislation has finally become a rallying cry to fix the filibuster rules.
The public understanding of Congress is that bills are introduced, work their way through committees and are ultimately brought to floor for debate and a vote. The sausage making process of how a bill becomes law is fraught with a Bible full of rules governing how consideration is given to the introduced legislation. An astute Senator can exploit those rules with the use of filibuster maneuvers to deny consideration of a bill, effectively defeating representational democracy.
Just as a teenager will stand his ground and argue vociferously that he should be allowed to attend an overnight co-ed party, against the common sense of the parents, Senators have had the ability for unlimited oration to make their case against passage of legislation. The granddaddy of all filibusters was accomplished by Senator Strom Thurmond in 1957 by filibustering against the Civil Rights Act of 1957 for 24 hours and 18 minutes. To the credit of Strom, he had the courage to put his racist beliefs on full public display in an attempt to stand against the tide of history.
Unlike conversations around the family dinner table where the parent can halt discussion on a particular topic at anytime, Senate rules allow a member to talk as long as they desire. It is only through a cloture vote requiring 60 members to “aye,” can the Senate close debate. Just imagine if parents had to get a super-majority of family members around the dinner table to agree to end the discussion about teenager Tommy’s use of the car on Saturday night.
With the Democrats having only 55 members in their caucus and the heightened political partisanship on the part of Republicans, just the mere threat of a filibuster throws a monkey wrench in the proceedings. Another debilitating delay tactic is the “notice of intent to object” or secret hold placed by a Senator on legislation or a nomination. The threats of filibusters and secret holds all add up to monumental gridlock and a failure of the Senate to actually conduct business efficiently and effectively.
It is somewhat of a quirk in the rules governing debate in the Senate that they can only be changed at the beginning of a two-year session. There is no reason that the Senate couldn’t change the rules to close debate, cloture, to a 51 vote majority also known as the Constitutional or nuclear option. However, Senators in power from both parties seem to be more enamored with the historical institution of the Senate more than actually making the Senate run efficiently.
Rules regarding a super majority to end the debate or filibuster were in part meant to foster consensus and avoid contentious divisions and animosity. Today, Republican opposition to President Obama is the driving force behind the extra ordinary number of filibusters. Except for a very carefully scripted press conference or Senate floor speech, Republicans rarely go public with real talking filibusters.
The Senate works as much on parliamentary procedure as it does professional courtesy. The Wild West mentality of dirty politics was left to the House while they Senate preferred mud wrestling behind closed doors. If a Senator really felt opposition to a bill, and negotiation was not an option, he was offered the avenue to publicly take a stand like the lone dissident standing in front of the tank in Tienanmen Square.
Like teenage vandals working under the cover of darkness, Republican Senators place obstructionist parliamentary maneuvers so as to draw as little attention to themselves as possible. It is not the impending legislation that they really oppose. Their main goal is to impede the passage of any law that might help President Obama fulfill his promises and move the country forward.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnel agreed on Thursday to some minor modifications to filibuster rules.
What are those modifications?
“The deal will address the filibuster on the motion to proceed by changing the amount of debate time that would follow a cloture vote from 30 hours to four, speeding up Senate business and allowing more legislation to reach the floor. But the deal still requires Democrats to muster 60 votes to invoke cloture on that motion, despite Reid’s earlier suggestion that he would bar a filibuster on that motion entirely.
An alternate route to get past the motion to proceed will be implemented as a change to the rules, and a filibuster on the motion would be barred if the majority can find eight members of the minority, including the minority leader, to sign a petition. But Democrats already have 55 members in their caucus, five short of the 60 needed to end a filibuster, so it’s unclear what the purpose of getting three additional Republicans would be.”
“The two leaders agreed that they will make some changes in how the Senate carries out filibusters under the existing rules, reminiscent of the handshake agreement last term, which quickly fell apart. First, senators who wish to object or threaten a filibuster must actually come to the floor to do so. And second, the two leaders will make sure that debate time post-cloture is actually used in debate. If senators seeking to slow down business simply put in quorum calls to delay action, the Senate will go live, force votes to produce a quorum, and otherwise work to make sure senators actually show up and debate.”
These new rules speak more to time limits of debate as opposed to tackling the real issues of obstructionist filibusters. It appears as if the petulant and rebellious teenagers of the Republican Party have won the filibuster conundrum. While Senator Harry Reid can point to nominal rule modifications that have stifled moving legislation and nominees forward, those Senators opposed to the very fact that Barrack Obama is President will still have plenty of options to disrupt our family dinner meal together.