Hiding Behind the Filibuster Threat
Why is it that the Democrats have a solid majority in both houses of Congress, but are still unable to move their agenda along? The framers of the constitution established our democracy as majority rule, and most congressional votes require a simple majority, or fifty-one votes in the senate, well within the 60-seat majority currently held by the Democrats. But yet we are told that important bills such as health care reform are being held up and watered down because the Democrats have been unable to draft a bill that can garner a full sixty votes to head off a possible filibuster. And that is the key here, “a possible filibuster.” In today’s senate, just the threat of a “possible” filibuster is enough to make the Democrats run for cover and abandon their legislative priorities.
Do the math, how does a sixty to forty seat majority in the Senate not add up to a mandate by the American people to carry out an agenda of heath care reform, tax reform and other issues that are important to improve the quality of life for millions of Americans. I find it odd that even with a legislative mandate the Democrats are unable to move forward on so many important issues.
Nine years ago then candidate George W. Bush failed to win a majority of the voters, but was awarded a majority of electoral votes by the Republican dominated Supreme Court. This did not daunt the newly appointed President. Riding into Washington with his Texas cowboy boots he acted as if his questionable election was indeed a mandate from the American people. He proceeded to ride roughshod over a cowering and some might say cowardly Democratic minority in Congress. His agenda included tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, an unjust war in Iraq and gutting the Constitution among other priorities. All with the quiet acquiescence of the Democratic minority. So, as a minority in Congress the Democrats are unable to stop regressive legislation, and as a majority they are unable to pass progressive legislation. All under the cover of the supposed threat of a filibuster. Right now Harry Reid, Senate Majority Leader, is allowing a small number of conservative Democrats to hijack effective health care reform by submitting to their threat of joining the Republicans by not blocking a filibuster, and then protecting these same Democrats by maintaining their anonymity.
If our image of a senate filibuster is Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith goes to Washington, where a single senator speaks for days until exhaustion takes over to stop legislation, or the performances of racist Southern Senators filibustering civil rights legislation, that image needs to be updated. The filibuster first came into use on the mid-1800’s when a senator or group of senators would maintain the floor of the senate, speaking for as long as they could, or until the bill that they opposed was withdrawn. It wasn’t until 1917 that the Senate adopted the cloture rule allowing for a two-thirds majority of those voting to end a filibuster. From 1949 to 1975, the number required to end a filibuster waivered back and forth between two-thirds of those voting and two-thirds of the senate. Regardless of the vote need for cloture, the filibuster proved an effective tool to block progressive legislation. One example was the record setting filibuster of Strom Thurmond in his failed attempt to block civil rights legislation. He lasted for 24 hours and 18 minutes. Then in 1964, southern Democrats attempted to block the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 by filibustering for 75 hours.
Courageous Senate Majority leaders have broken filibusters in the past utilizing procedural issues. Strom Thurmond’ filibuster was rendered futile by then Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, who held all senate business from reaching the floor until the filibuster exhausted itself, paving the way for the civil rights bill to go to the floor for a vote and eventual passage. Too bad Harry Reid does not have that level of courage. If Mr. Reid, (Democrat from Nevada) was majority leader during the civil rights era, we would still have segregation and Jim Crow laws throughout the south.
In the modern day filibuster, all one has to do is threaten to take this action and the ruling Democrats run for cover. When Strom Thurmond or southern Democrats took to the floor of the senate to filibuster civil rights legislation we knew who the enemy was. They were forced to come forward and stand in front of the senate for all to see. Today however, Mr. Reid, and indeed the Democratic caucus in the senate are allowing a small minority of senators to hide behind anonymity and block effective health care reform by the mere threat of a filibuster. We need to ask ourselves if this is truly a democracy when the will of the electorate can be thwarted by a anonymous minority?
The filibuster does not exist in the House because in 1842 the House adopted strict rules limiting debate. Prior to that, filibusters were allowed in the House also. Could there be a better time for a democratic majority to restore democracy to the senate floor and adopt rules that would limit debate in that branch of Congress also? After 167 years, perhaps it is time for the Senate to catch up to their colleagues in the House and advance the cause of democracy.