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Ending the Filibuster: Fuhgeddaboudit

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Published on BuzzFlash on Thu, 07/15/2010 - 8:25am.


Steven Jonas , MD, MPH

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For those who might not be familiar with the term, "fuhgeddaboudit" is one of those three-into-one Noo Yawk words that puts the final stamp on the subject with which it is concerned. Yes, folks, good folks like Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa can present very logical arguments for getting rid of the most anti-democratic rule crippling the functioning of any legislature in any of the "Western Democracies" (see his "Fixing the Filibuster" of June 30, 2010, published in the current issue of The Nation). However, as long as the Democratic Losership Council (love that name, applied by a commentator on an earlier commentary of mine) controls the Democratic Party, it ain't going to happen.

Senator Harkin makes all of the right arguments:

"Despite record-high persistent unemployment, Republicans have repeatedly used the filibuster to kill attempts to extend benefits to the long-term jobless. Meanwhile, real and threatened filibusters have prevented Democrats from addressing urgent national priorities, ranging from climate change to immigration reform to energy transformation. . . . The filibuster rule has become an absurd and destructive anachronism. As few as forty-one senators, potentially representing less than 15 percent of the population, have the power to block any bill, amendment or nominee. In other words, America has become a representative democracy without majority rule. . . . In the 1950s, there was an average of one per two-year Congressional session. By contrast, during the last Congress (2007-08), 139 bills were filibustered. Already in the current Congress, since January 2009, there have been more than 100 filibusters. . . . That is why I have introduced a bill to change the Standing Rules of the Senate to reform the cloture procedure. Currently, it takes sixty votes to "invoke cloture"--in other words, to end debate on a legislative measure and bring it to a vote. My bill would permit a decreasing number of senators to invoke cloture on a given measure . . . . But, over a period of days or weeks, the number of votes required would fall to a simple majority of fifty-one senators."

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By golly, makes sense, no? By vastly modifying the filibuster rule, the Senate would actually become democratic. But, forgetting about the GOP and their political aims for using the filibuster ad nauseum , that is exactly what the DLC is afraid of. Because if it were democratic, with the current very substantial Democratic majority, it might actually have to become Democratic, despite Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu and Blanche Lincoln. Ohmygosh, chills running up and down Rahm's spine along with the spines of every other entrenched DLCer from Bill Clinton on up (or down, depending upon your point of view). Those chills likely primarily relate to policy (I will make the case for that below). But they also relate to unfamiliarity. Because in modern times, when the Democrats have been in the minority, they just never have happened to have used the tactic.

Now the present Senate leadership, "led" if you can call it that, by the card-carrying DLCer Harry Reid, tells us that the arcane rules of the Senate make doing away with the filibuster rule in mid-term impossible. Well, the rules of the Senate are indeed described as arcane, so arcane in fact that, with the death of Sen. Robert Byrd (who, it was said, knew them like no one else ever has) we might never know all of them again. But rules are made to be used, to be modified, even to be changed. It just happens that in the last Congress controlled by the GOP, when there was talk that the Democrats might actually filibuster several particularly unattractive Bush judicial nominees, the GOP threatened to invoke the "nuclear option" to revoke the filibuster rule. Of course, the Democrats, with dear old Joe Lieberman (yes, he was still a Democrat back then) leading the way, absolutely caved and made a couple of really meaningless "compromises." The filibuster rule was kept in place. Too bad, in fact, that they didn't force the GOP to do away with it. But the GOP had absolutely no qualms about getting ready to ditch it mid-term, "arcane" Senate rules or not.

So why does the Senate Democratic leadership not do the same thing? Because they don't want to change it, that's why. Having the Senate be subject to democratic rule would mean that Harry Reid, not Mitch McConnell, would be the true Majority Leader. (Yes, whether advertently or inadvertently, in a recent column Frank Rich did actually refer to Sen. McConnell as the "majority leader".) And functionally he is. Because no bill will get passed in the Senate, no Obama appointment will be approved, without McConnell's OK. (Between the 2008 election and Obama's inauguration McConnell actually announced that in the next Congress he would filibuster any piece of legislation he didn't like. Some "bi-partisanship." I guess Obama must have missed that one.) And given how Harry Reid handles things in the Senate, McConnell's boy and girls don't actually have to engage in filibustering. That is, they don't have to engage in endless debate on the Senate floor, doing things like reading from the Washington, DC telephone book, getting themselves very tired, and given C-Span, making themselves look absolutely ridiculous before the nation. No they just have to announce "we have 40 votes against." That's it and that's that.

But supposing there were no filibuster rule. Well, let's start in the House. There is a substantial minority of true Democrats in the House, beginning with the Black and Progressive Caucuses. The House leadership is only somewhat DLC, and many of the most powerful committee chairs, like Barney Frank, are definitely of the former variety. Knowing that progressive legislation could actually get to the Senate floor for a vote and that some of it actually might pass, the House would be under much more outside political pressure to pass such legislation. Why, the leadership might actually have to arm-twist some of the Republidems (otherwise known as "Blue Dogs") just the way that Gingrich and DeLay used to arm-twist the few "liberal" Republicans remaining in the House in their era.

But just think what bills might come up in that case. A whole bunch not at all on the agenda of Obama and the DLC:

1. Single-payer health insurance might at least have made it to the legislative hopper, in contrast with the private insurance-subsidy legislation we have now.

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2. There might have been true banking reform, like the full restoration of Glass-Steagal that was so ingloriously done away with by Bill Clinton and Larry Summers.

3. There might be some really tight oversight of stock trading, including bringing that mysterious world of the hedge funds, that did so much to bring on the 2007-2008 crash, under regulatory scrutiny.

4. There might be real visitation of the $35 billion in subsidies that the oil industry currently receives from the federal government.

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Steven Jonas, MD, MPH, MS is a Professor Emeritus of Preventive Medicine at StonyBrookMedicine (NY) and author/co-author/editor/co-editor of over 35 books. In addition to his position on OpEdNews as a "Trusted Author," he is a Senior Editor, (more...)

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