Should the Senate’s use of the filibuster be allowed to thwart the will of the majority in killing landmark legislation such as the DREAM Act, passing energy and climate legislation, or coming up with a budget? More and more people are saying “no,” including Common Cause, a non-partisan citizen’s lobbying organization. On May 14 Common Cause filed a lawsuit contending that the filibuster rule as used today is unconstitutional.
James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
The concept of the filibuster and the rules governing its use has changed over the years. “Filibusters were particularly useful to Southern senators who sought to block civil rights legislation
, including anti-lynching legislation, until cloture (calling for an end to debate) was invoked after a 57 day filibuster against the Civil Right Act of 1964. In 1975, the Senate reduced the number of votes required for cloture from two-thirds to three-fifths, or 60 of the current one hundred senators.” The procedure has been streamlined to the point that one Senator, speaking for an additional 40, can invoke a filibuster, making it, essentially “painless.”
“While the Senate can set its own rules, they can’t be unconstitutional,” said Common Cause President Bob Edgar, a former Democratic U.S. representative from Pennsylvania. “This is an unconstitutional provision. A minority of senators representing a minority of the population of the nation can in fact rule, with the current system.”
With respect for Congress at its lowest ebb since polls started tracking, even members inside the House and the Senate are giving attention to what has gone wrong with these institutions. “Led by reform-minded Senators such as Jeff Merkley (D-Ore), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the Senate explored rules reform at the start of this 112th Congress. The Communications Workers of America (CWA), Common Cause, and the Sierra Club led a broad coalition of progressive organizations dubbed Fix the Senate Now, to support the rules reform effort. Broad support for change took the form of more than 40,000 calls to Senate offices, more than 100,000 petitions signed and delivered, and dozens of supportive editorials from national and state outlets.”
Despite all this support, the package of reforms did not receive enough support for passage. It was back to business as usual, with the minority still able to countermand the will of the majority—and the country. Following this defeat, “ In a March 2011 letter, Senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and eight other Senators promised to use the filibuster and other obstructionist tools to block Senate debate on any bill that failed to meet their extreme criteria. And the wider Republican caucus has fallen in line and followed through on these threats. According to research by David Waldman of Congress Matters and Daily Kos, this current 112th Congress already has witnessed the third highest total of cloture motions ever filed, and it’s only May. The only two sessions to see greater levels of obstruction were the immediately preceding 110th and 111th sessions.”
The controversy between the two sides is illustrated by the following exchanges. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate Majority Whip, said, on the Senate floor, “The filibuster is virtually shutting down the Senate.” Conversely, “Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said the filibuster isn’t being overused by the minority. He said the problem is Democrats aren’t seeking Republican ideas before moving legislation to the floor and are blocking the minority’s ability to offer amendments.”
This begs comparison with two small children arguing over who did what. “It reflects the breakdown of any sense of collaboration between the Democrats and Republicans,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a professor of communication at Boston University. “Whichever party is out of power wields the filibuster like a mace. Whichever party is in power bemoans the degradation of Senate decorum due to the filibuster. This has made the world’s foremost deliberative body increasingly more dysfunctional.”
This is not a good time to have a dysfunctional Senate, the body we look to for solutions to long-term issues such as national security, foreign affairs, and the economy. The motivation to reform the filibuster rule is lacking, even within the majority party, which may well consider that after the next election cycle they may be in the minority and would need that advantage.
The foregoing illuminates why we must lend support to Common Cause’s lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the filibuster. “The suit is given little chance, since the courts have consistently upheld the rights of the House and Senate to make their own rules. But a growing bloc of lawmakers is expressing opposition to the rule. Among those objecting is Harry Reid, of Nevada, who has had a front-row seat witnessing opposition Republicans kill various measures via filibuster.”
“It’s almost universally acknowledged that Republican obstructionism has reached new heights in the Senate,” Reid said. “Democrats would have to break a filibuster, I guess, to declare the sky blue or the Earth is round, and passing even the most common-sense consensus legislation can take weeks or months.”
The unbridled use of the filibuster with the intent of a minority to dictate legislation is a blot on the idea of representative democracy. “It creates a disincentive to compromise, and allows powerful special interests to call the shots behind closed doors,” says Edgar. The Senate’s right to make its own rules must be constrained by the larger principle of fairness to the people the Senate represents. However this lawsuit turns out, American citizens need to follow this issue and, at the very least, vote out of office the enemies of this critical reform.
What can you do—you are only one person? True, but you are only “six degrees of separation,” on average, from any other person on Earth. You become powerful when you share information with your friends and ask them to share it with their friends—it becomes a global revolution. As Stephen King suggests in The Long Walk, when these “society-supported sociopaths” come, step aside, and find the strength to run…
Click here to petition the United States Senate to Stop the Filibuster to Allow Minority Rule
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