January 18, 2011
-- by Dave Johnson
The Senate is considering reforming the rules for filibusters. In the last few years the filibuster has been used so frequently that it is now conventional wisdom that "it takes 60 votes to pass a bill in the Senate." This is because the public, and apparently even much of the news media, does not understand how the Senate operates. In fact, when you hear that something takes 60 votes to pass it is because it has been filibustered.
In the last two years everything has been blocked by an obstructive minority in the Senate. This was done as a strategy, on purpose, with the idea that by blocking everything and keeping the public from understanding this was what was going on, the public would turn against the Democrats for not getting enough done to solve the country's problems. And it worked.
Make Them Talk
So the Senate is considering changing the rules for the filibuster, in an attempt to restore democracy and enable a return to governing and problem-solving. They are not talking about getting rid of the filibuster, they are talking about returning to its original purpose. To sum it up, they are going to try to make them talk.
Currently a Senator can can announce a filibuster or place a "hold," and that alone requires that the Senate gather 60 votes to undo it. For nominations the Senator does not even have to be identified. But this is not what the public understand the filibuster to be. The public thinks the filibuster is a dramatic event, with Senators talking all night, like in the movie Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.
So the proposed changes in the filibuster will bring this back. Senators will have to talk, and it will be dramatic, and the public will know that there is a filibuster underway.
Senator Harkin: The Purpose Of The Filibuster
On a call with the press today Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa talked about this idea for changing the filibuster. He began by reminding us of the original purpose of the filibuster. This was so that when the majority is doing something that is egregious, the minority can hold it up, giving the public time to react if they so choose. But this is not at all what we have today. Today it enables the minority to block everything, subverting democracy.
Harkin said that by enabling the minority to block everything we have "stood democracy on its head." The minority decides everything, which means "the majority has the responsibility but not the ability to govern." "The minority should not have the power to dictate what the senate does."
The purpose of the filibuster, he said, should be to slow things down and let the public know something dramatic is happening. And the use of a supermajority was historically limited, originally for impeachment, treaties and overturing a veto. Not for passing legislation or confirming nominees.
Harkin would like to see a return to a dramatic, make-them-talk filibuster.
Good For Democracy
Making them talk would be good for democracy, because the public will be able to see that a dramatic event is taking place. Just as in the movie, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, the public will have a chance to rise in support of the effort, or let Senators know they oppose it.
Making them talk all night gives the public an opportunity to rally, one way or the other. It also, frankly, puts on a show, which will engage the public, restoring interest in government. This is good and we should do it.
Please visit Fix The Senate Now for more information. And CALL YOUR SENATORS to tell them you support reforming the filibuster!
Posted by Dave Johnson at January 18, 2011 1:15 PM
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