Fixing the filibuster

Kari Chisholm FacebookTwitterWebsite

Not so long ago, we were all talking about a "filibuster-proof" majority of 60 Democrats in the Senate. Sure, that included Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson, but many of us had this crazy idea that we at least had a moment where 60 Senators - mostly in our corner - could and would drive an era of progressive policy.

And while it's true that 2009 saw more action from Congress than we've seen in years, it's also true that progressives were frustrated - repeatedly - by filibusters, threats of filibusters, hints of filibusters that not only stopped good legislation, but also shaped very context of the policy conversation. Why bother even mentioning an idea that would only get 52, 53, 54 votes in the Senate?

Now, two years later, we're down to 53 votes - including Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson. And some Democrats are quietly thankful that filibuster reform never saw the light of day.

But not Senator Jeff Merkley. He's one of a group of Senators - mostly new to the place - that continues to push the idea that in America, the side that has more votes should get to drive policy.

From Friday's Register-Guard editorial:

Merkley proposed limiting the use of the filibuster to block nominations, and allowing it to be used only when bills come up for a final vote rather than on amendments.

He also suggested an idea that has been advanced by others: Restore the original meaning of the filibuster. When a majority supports a bill, a minority should be able to block a vote only by remaining on the Senate floor day and night. “If they believe so much that it is so wrong to proceed to a final vote,” Merkley said, “they should have the courage and dedication ... to make their point to the American people.”

I support Merkley's moves here. Sure, I'm concerned about what might happen when the Republicans actually get control of the Senate. But I'd prefer to win on the strength of our ideas, not through silly anti-democratic procedural roadblocks.

Protection of the minority is important, but the effectiveness of a majority is important, too. Ultimately, as the R-G points out, we may only get filibuster reform if we actually empower the minority -- to give them more fine-tuned tools to influence the outcome, rather than the sledgehammer of the filibuster:

Senators of both parties understand that they may one day be in the minority, and the filibuster preserves the minority’s relevance. Reform will come only when senators lose their fear of being marginalized as members of the minority.

Merkley has experience in this area as well. When he became speaker of the Oregon House in 2007, Democrats felt they had been mistreated through much of the previous 16-year period of Republican control. Many believed it was payback time. But Merkley pointedly refused to extend a cycle of disempowerment and retribution. He instituted proportional representation on committees and guaranteed the minority’s right to propose legislation. The result was not only greater comity in the House but better government.

To me, this is a critical issue - and important for the sake of our democracy. After all, if elections don't actually change policy, what's the point of having elections?

Not only that, but from from a tactical perspective, I think this will serve progressives well long-term: if Republicans take control, I think it might be useful for Americans to see the policy that they'll push through.

Ultimately, a legislative body stuck in intractable paralysis favors the forces of power and money - against the populist drive for progressive change. Even if it means that we'll lose some battles, ending the filibuster means we'll be more likely to win the war.

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    If a filibuster is what we need to save social security and Medicare, then let's keep it. If a radical right Senate comes out of the next election cycle or two, do we want the dismantling of the safety net, and what few environmental protections we have in this country for the sake of this reform? My own cynical mind says we don't have a competition of ideas any more in this country, but a competition of money and power.

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    FYI: Made a couple of factual corrections. In my initial version, I said it was "two years ago" that we had 60 -- not quite right, due to the Franken recount (which got us to 59) and the Specter switch (which didn't happen until April 2009.)

    Also, I initially wrote that we're now at 51. We are, of course, at 53 -- counting Bernie Sanders and Joe Lieberman.

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    The filibuster won't protect liberal laws since the GOP being far more hard-headed than dems when in control means they will simply gut it with the rules Kari wants dems to make.

    Also the GOP can gut funding for the liberal agenda (ie starve the EPA of funds etc), and budget bills already need only a simple majority.

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    I quote Harry Reid the minority leader in 2005, "the filibuster is an important check on executive power and part of every Senator’s right to free speech in the United States Senate."

    My what a difference a few years make.

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    The filibuster is meaningless without the attached committment to stand on the floor and argue the merits of your effort. A lot of us have been calling for a return to the old rules for a long time.

    This ain't quatum physics. If the danged tree falls in the forest we should all be able to hear it loud and clear.

    Transparency Baby!

    Thanks Jeff.

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    The ruling party should own its success as well as its failure. Too often people vote for Republicans because they intuitively know that their extreme ideas will die a quite death and will never take the form of law. If the filibuster were ended and the Republicans made good of their promises, it would he a wake up call for those who think the two parties are alike. Think of the backlash if Republicans actually privatized social security, or eliminated federal education funding, or ...

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    Rather than curtail the filibuster progressives ought to learn how to use it.

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