Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Filibuster and Recent History

In what seems a rather transparent attempt to make the most of a diminished majority, Senate Democrats have (almost) unanimously signed on to a letter asking Majority Leader Harry Reid to "reform" the filibuster:
The letter, delivered this week, expresses general frustration with what Democrats consider unprecedented obstruction and asks Reid to take steps to end those abuses. While it does not urge a specific solution, Democrats said it demonstrates increased backing in the majority for a proposal, championed by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and others, to weaken the minority’s ability to tie the Senate calendar into parliamentary knots.

Among the chief revisions that Democrats say will likely be offered: Senators could not initiate a filibuster of a bill before it reaches the floor unless they first muster 40 votes for it, and they would have to remain on the floor to sustain it. That is a change from current rules, which require the majority leader to file a cloture motion to overcome an anonymous objection to a motion to proceed, and then wait 30 hours for a vote on it.

This "chief revision" may have some merit in some aspects, though it seems that the real aim of many advocates of filibuster "reform" is to limit the ability of the minority to put any brakes on the ambitions of the majority. A radical diminishing of the power of the minority would transform the Senate from an institution emphasizing compromise to one emphasizing majoritarian partisanship.

However, the past few weeks of the lame duck session of Congress have probably complicated the "progressive" mantra that the "Senate is broken." On the tax cut compromise, DADT, and the START treaty, we have seen Senate Republicans cooperating with Senate Democrats and the Obama White House to pass significant reforms. When there is large popular support for a measure (as in the tax cut deal or repealing DADT), the Senate seems quite capable of passing legislation. Bernie Sanders gave one stem-winder of a filibuster---but that did not stop the tax cut deal from passing with overwhelming support. It seems that when unpopular bills are considered (such as Obamacare) that the supposed "brokenness" of the Senate appears.

The past few weeks have shown that it is possible for the Senate to pass legislation and to work in a bi-partisan fashion. The "brokenness" of the Senate may have less to do with structural problems and more to do with limited public support for radical "progressive" dreams.

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