Monday, January 28, 2013

Tyranny of the Minority

By Reginald Johnson

Another key issue, another cave-in by Democrats.

Senate Democats in the U.S. Congress voted overwhelmingly last week to approve a bi-partisan deal on “filibuster reform” which will allow Republicans to continue to misuse the filibuster rule and block progressive legislation from getting passed. This means it’s going to be exceedingly hard to get good legislation through Congress in the next few years to fight global warming, preserve the social safety net or tighten gun laws.

You can thank Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. for orchestrating this sell-out. Although Reid had talked frequently in recent years about the need to reform or even end the filibuster practice, in the final analysis he agreed to a package of weak, almost meaningless changes to the filibuster, in a deal worked out with Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

The GOP in recent years has been using the filibuster rule to block consideration of hundreds of bills advanced by Democrats. The practice of the filibuster --- a rule which has been around for over 100 years --- allows one Senator to block all consideration of a bill by simply standing and talking, about anything, for hours on end. In recent years, “silent filibusters” were allowed, meaning all a senator had to do to stall legislation was merely file a statement that he was filbustering a bill. The senator did not have to stand on the Senate floor and justify his or her reasons for blocking a bill.

The only way to end a filibuster is for bill proponents to gather at least 60 votes in the Senate and vote for “cloture.”

Since Democrats have not had 60 votes in the Senate in recent years, they’ve often been unable to reach cloture and seen the GOP stonewall much of their agenda. The old maxim that all you have to do to pass legislation is get a simple majority to vote “yes,” has gone out the window.

What you’ve had here that past few years has been “tyranny of the minority.”

According to the Democrats, Republicans launched more than 385 filibusters since 2007, compared to 49 from 1919 to 1970.

Reid had a golden opportunity to end this sorry state of affairs and make sure that filibusters wouldn’t be used so often to block bills.

In a special period of days at the beginning of every congressional session, the Senate can modify rules with votes by a simple majority. That special period was last week, and it was believed there were enough votes to change the filibuster. Following last fall’s election, Democrats have 55 members in the 100-member Senate. That’s a potential 56 votes for a Democrat bill for real filibuster reform, including a likely yes vote from progressive Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Reform advocates wanted a tough filibuster rule which would shut down silent filibusters, and force bill opponents to take to the floor and openly justify their action, and not hide behind closed doors. The reform group reasoned that if lawmakers considering a filibuster knew they had to publicly defend their action in a “talking filibuster,” they would be less likely to go ahead.

But instead of showing real leadership and marshaling all the Democrats to get behind the reform effort, Reid caved in and decided to sit down and talk compromise with McConnell.

What came out, of course, was mush.

The bill agreed upon calls for some tweaks in the filibuster rule, which proponents say will speed up the legislative process a bit. But there will be no requirement for “talking filibusters” and the minority party will be able to stall the legislative process almost as much as before.

Sanders joined with a handful of tea party Republicans to oppose the bill.

. “This country faces major crises in terms of the economy and unemployment, the deficit, global warming, health care, campaign finance reform, education and a crumbling infrastructure – to name a few. In my view, none of these problems will be effectively addressed so long as one senator can demand 60 votes to pass legislation,” Sanders said.

It’s not clear why Reid backed away from making a more determined effort to get real filibuster reform. There were reports that some Democrats in the Senate caucus wouldn’t back a tough bill. Maybe the reports are true. But it is the majority leader’s job to get his party in line to back bills which have critical importance, and certainly the filibuster overhaul was crucial for the Democratic agenda. It didn’t seem like Reid really tried to get his party in line.

Ed Schultz, commentator on MSNBC’s “The Ed Show,” called out Reid for his weak performance, and speculated that the majority leader didn’t really want the tough filibuster measure to go through, since that will enhance the chances for a gun control bill to pass the Senate. Democrats from rural sates where pro-gun sentiment is high, could face a political backlash. Schultz said Reid “may have been trying to help them.”

I hope this theory isn’t true, but if it is, it’s an absolute disgrace.

Meanwhile, the progressive advocacy group Common Cause is proceeding with its lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the filibuster.

The case is before the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington following a lower court judge’s ruling in December that Common Cause and other plaintiffs, including four members of the House of Representatives, lacked legal standing to sue.

“We’re convinced that in a trial on the merits, we can demonstrate that the filibuster is unconstitutional and was never contemplated by America’s founders,” said Bob Edgar, Common Cause president.

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